Secure communications must match the pace of change in the healthcare sector

By Sanjay Saini, SVP & GM, BlackBerry AtHoc

Credit: ID 125506759 © Viktoriia Bohuslavets |

Healthcare is in the midst of a technology revolution. Cutting edge innovations like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and the connected ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) are driving the  digitisation of hospitals and the health industry at pace to improve patient care.  

As part of this leap forward, new systems and platforms are helping to solve the issues and risks faced by these highly regulated organisations to pave the way for truly successful digital transformation.  However, in plotting this course, healthcare organisations face a constant battle:  How can they keep people and information in their care safe, keep costs down, and still maintain their focus on improving patient care? 

The impacts of failing to strike this balance are clear to see. When the Wannacry attack hit in 2017, the UK’s NHS needing to re-schedule hundreds of emergency surgeries. A subsequent inquiry saw a systems overhaul to improve cyber resilience across the health and care system. The cost of this attack – reputationally, operationally, and financially – was more than significant.  

According to consulting firm PwC, one of the major issues defining the healthcare industry in 2018 – and for the foreseeable future – is cybersecurity. Earlier this year, Melbourne’s Cabrini Hospital fell victim to a ransomware cyber-attack which stole the data of up to 15,000 patients. Despite paying the ransom, the organisation was unable to protect the patient data, resulting in a very public breach.

Securing systems is as important as medicine

Often, security software and other technologies are de-prioritised when budgets are tight. And in healthcare, budgets are invariably tight and the priority is on new treatment technologies. However, history has proven that time and time again, incidents will happen, and breaches are inevitable.

Instead of thinking about technology as a cost, it is important to consider it an investment. Not only in terms of return on investment – which it can undoubtedly deliver – but in protecting against the financial and reputational impact of breaches and incidents. Secure communications and people safety should be part of any risk mitigation strategy.

With the right systems, healthcare institutions can tap into the benefits of technology without increasing risk. In New Zealand, for example, a hospital recently replaced its outdated pager system with secure crisis communications software, BlackBerry AtHoc. By doing so, it revolutionised its operations, not just through day-to-day communications, but through operational efficiency.

This included being able to send out multi-modal alerts, ensuring that on-call physicians receive messages about patients and are able to respond. No longer does a lack of reception mean an available doctor does not receive an alert.  

The use of this crisis communications software also meant that in the case of a health scare or major incident which would demand large numbers of staff, the hospital is now able to reach out to the nurses’ database to fill shifts. Duty nurses no longer need to pick up the phone and call them one by one to see who is available.  This is a significant time and resource saver, allowing staff to get on with more important thing – like saving lives.

Message received, loud and clear

Crisis communications systems must be interoperable across a wide range of networks, media and devices used by different agencies, first responders and health professionals.  It is also critically important to get information back from people the field, such as health staff working with afflicted patients or emergency staff handling a new outbreak.   

In a connected hospital situation, secure multi-modal communication plays an integral role. This means the ability for a trusted platform to use many different methods of communication to alert, then get intelligence back from the field. This may include PA systems, to connected security cameras, digital TV screens, PCs and the phones in peoples’ hands.

With two-way communication capability, it is easier to find out who needs help and how-to co-ordinate people to assist.  For example, geographically, you can know who’s available, nearby and contact them automatically. If team members are unavailable or someone doesn’t reply, it will automatically alert the appropriate people.

In the example shared from New Zealand, two-way communications have provided the hospital with the ability to send messages to specific teams – such as specialists, ER, and to the helicopter crew – to help enable more accurate and relevant communication and ensure a message is always actioned.

Saving lives is a two-way street

In an environment where life and death decisions are made every minute – communication is vital and trust in data is pivotal.  Healthcare emergencies, like the measles outbreak in New York or a major car accident, can quickly impact the resourcing needs of a hospital. Two-way communication systems can be used to contact on-call physicians, reach the number of required responses, and then send tailored messages to them. This helps respond quickly and efficiently to any incident.

It is not only the provision of medical services and operations that can be improved using new communications platforms – but in some cased, emergencies within a hospital itself.  Just recently, Australia’s Health and Services Union (HSU) has called for more security guards at a large  hospital in Australia for staff, patient and visitor safety among “sky-high” levels of violence. 

It is regularly reported in Australia that violence against hospital staff is rising, bringing with it an increased need to protect and respond.  The Victorian government for example has published a policy, addressing violence in health care settings and Australian government figures show the number of “code blacks” – incidents where the safety of hospital staff is threatened – is rising.

Tools to ensure the safety of staff and the ability to respond to these code blacks are a vital part of hospital infrastructure, ensuring they are taking care of the carers.

Maintaining a safe and healthy environment

Aside from saving lives, keeping staff and patient data safe while trying to enjoy all the benefits of cutting-edge innovation is one of the most important challenges in healthcare today.  It must be understood however, that using technology to create a safer workplace and improve efficiencies means more than cutting costs.  

It can deliver true operational excellence – whether that’s on the ward, managing remote healthcare workers or acting in response to a major incident.  Ultimately, in striving to protect your people and data, it will result in better patient care, and more effective outcomes.

Tags BlackberryInternet of Things (IoT)artificial intelligence (AI)

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