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IT for Healthcare: Biggest Challenges, Threats, & Solutions

Chief information officers in healthcare settings must balance strict privacy and security requirements with the need to constantly improve IT infrastructure and performance. From small doctor’s offices to major hospitals, the healthcare IT environment is increasingly complex. If not managed appropriately, it can negatively impact patient care.

The Healthcare industry is one of the largest pillars of the U.S. economy, making it a sizable target for a slew of digital security threats, both malicious and negligent. Security threats can come in many forms, from unprotected mobile devices and human error to systematic hacking.

With healthcare being a large target for hackers and one of the largest industries holding sensitive information, managing IT solutions is a daunting task. This post will detail the biggest threats and challenges faced by the healthcare industry, as well as how healthcare professionals can combat them.

Common IT Challenges Faced by Healthcare Organizations

With its government-mandated need for security, massive amounts of sensitive data, and a rapidly changing technological environment, healthcare faces the most significant challenges in implementing effective IT solutions.

More and More Data Sources are Emerging

Healthcare data usage is growing at an exponential pace for a variety of reasons. Digital imaging technologies, electronic medical records, and resource-taxing applications are placing a strain on existing data infrastructures. Mobile applications and a growing use of telemedicine technologies also are increasing data generation and the need for its secure storage and management. When data is coming from multiple, new sources, it makes storing and protecting that data more difficult.

Federal Privacy Requirements Change

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, requires medical providers to safeguard patients’ private medical information. The federal law requires stringent procedures for backing up data along with recovering data in disaster and emergency situations. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health act, or HITECH, strengthened HIPAA and increased penalties and requirements for mandatory notifications when data breaches occur.

Organizations Have Different Data Management Strategies

Only in the past few years have electronic medical records become the standard, and data systems that smoothly interface between all medical providers remain years away. While the industry regularly rolls out innovations to improve patient care and facility operations, the advances often have limited capability to “talk” to each other. This lack of ability to interface across systems restricts the ability to automate processes and to capture and use data effectively, decreasing the return on investment for technology.

IT Costs are Going Up

Healthcare organizations are facing rapidly increasing IT costs from a number of drivers, including government regulations, growing energy needs, and pressure to effectively coordinate with the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. In light of the challenges, medical providers are changing the ways in which they manage IT infrastructure, including increasing the use of cloud services and virtualization models.

There’s Always More Data to Store

Data storage needs for healthcare double approximately every 18 months, largely due to regulatory pressure to keep patient information indefinitely. Forward-thinking medical organizations have begun implementing strategic, multi-tiered storage plans that include on-site, off-site and virtual storage. But improving overall storage capacity also requires more efficient software solutions for managing the massive and growing amounts of data that now exist in diverse medical environments.

And then there’s the issue of securing all that data…

Cybersecurity Threats to the Healthcare Industry

With great data comes great responsibility. Healthcare organizations have critical financial and personal data vital to their operation, making security a top priority for their IT. Here are some of the biggest threats healthcare organizations face:

Targets for Hacking

In August of 2014, hackers broke into the database of a major hospital group, Community Health Systems, and stole social security numbers and other personal data from 4.5 million patients. And just last month, hospitals in the UK were crippled by the WannaCry ransomware, causing them to cancel appointments and operations.

The wealth of private and personal information within healthcare systems makes the industry an inherent target for hacking. The files and information they house make them a goldmine for determined hackers. Weak security systems can leave an entire hospital system very vulnerable.

More Mobile, More Problems

Mobile devices are an integral part of society, and the number and kinds of devices used by medical professionals, patients, and visitors are becoming even greater. Instant communication is necessary to ensure quality care for patients, which makes network accessibility incredibly important. The downside is that all of these devices contain operating systems that are vulnerable to hacking and infection, leaving the hospital’s network largely exposed.

Network access control solutions allow you to: identify each user and their device, scan for potential threats, and provide access that correlates to the user’s role within the network. This not only protects your health care organizations from infected devices but also protects sensitive and confidential client files from people who should not have access to them.

Simple User Errors

User errors pose other security threats for healthcare systems. When a patient accesses medical records through a portal, their private information is in their hands. Once they store files in unprotected folders on their computer or email results to family, they create an easy way in for hackers and infections.

With all this potential room for error, how can healthcare organizations prepare?

Steps for Healthcare IT Planning

A flexible system aligned with all departments in your organization, allowing for quicker implementation of decisions and fewer roadblocks when making changes that affect the bottom line. Sounds pretty great, right? So that’s why; but how?

1. Make Data Collection Easier

The first step in crafting an effective IT plan is to enable easier collection of data. Until they know how the system needs to change, the IT department will have a hard time making changes that actually work. To that end, it’s important to collect the right types of data. Which systems work? Which don’t? Which are slower than they need to be? Which cost too much money, or worse, too many lives? The answers to these questions pave the way toward a better system, so implement changes that allow stakeholders to give their feedback in meaningful ways.

2. Use Capability Maps

IT planning for healthcare is all about giving IT the best possible chance of supporting the business. Capability maps can help by showing where IT links up with critical operations in the healthcare organization. Only by ensuring that IT is actually where it needs to be can you ensure a better model overall. While creating a capability map might seem like one more exercise to get through, it helps you find and plug the holes in your IT system.

3. Model a Variety of Plans

Modeling is as effective a tool when it comes to IT planning for healthcare as it is for building spaceships or predicting climate change. Modeling, essentially, allows you to view many potentialities at once without having to actually implement them. By creating robust, flexible models that mimic the effects of various IT decisions, you can choose the plan that results in the best, most flexible model before making any changes at all.

4. Report, Report, Report

The whole point of collecting data, finding system gaps and choosing your ideal model is to ensure your IT system works better, is responsive to change and allows for quick adaptation to need and opportunity. You’ll only know this is true if you report thoroughly and often, so do so.

Planning a well-thought-out IT plan can introduce tools you may not even be aware of and combine them to form an all-encompassing healthcare tech strategy. End result? A scalable, efficient, technology-based environment with some very tangible benefits. But many organizations, especially smaller firms without a committee focused on IT planning services, all too often fail to properly plan.

What About IT Planning Services?

Smaller organizations can take advantage of proper IT planning even if they can’t carve out the time to do it themselves. Here’s how healthcare operations can benefit from IT planning services.

1. Increased Accessibility

One of the biggest trends in healthcare IT right now is telemedicine. Computers and the internet make it easier than ever for care providers to stay in touch with patients who are at home.

This not only limits unnecessary office traffic, minimizing bottlenecks, but it also provides more comfort and convenience for patients who are not in condition for moving around a lot.

Not to mention the simple peace of mind that comes with having direct access to a care provider.

2. More Control in the Hands of Patients

Not only does technology give your patients better access to your knowledge and advice, but it also puts more power in their own hands. One of the most frustrating feelings for a human is one of powerlessness, especially when it comes to one’s own health and personal safety.

There is a growing trend of different IT applications that pull patients further into the medical process. Through computer technology, they can be provided resources to learn more about their condition, opportunities to take more involvement in the treatment decisions, and tools for optimizing their health.

3. Minimal Errors

The right tech planning can greatly reduce instances of medical error, keeping patients safe and protecting your organization from lawsuits.

Electronic medical records, for instance, consolidate all a patient’s medical information in one place, whereas in the past they may have had different files with a range of different providers throughout the city or even country. With EMRs, you’ve got one living file that is constantly updated, making it less likely something will get overlooked.

Other technologies that can reduce error include computerized discharge prescriptions, “smart” intravenous devices, automated pharmacies, and bar coding.

4. A More Productive Team

Technology is often looked to for the possibility to create a more efficient, productive workforce, and in this area, healthcare IT doesn’t disappoint.

For example, mobile devices are becoming powerful tools in the hands of hospital staff these days. They are perfect for constantly communicating with each other on the run around the premises, and there are some great healthcare applications that can be used to easily fill out forms, double-check information, or carry out other admin tasks.

Many doctors also tap into online resources, like videos and professional articles, to learn more about their field, make medical decisions, or educate clients and patients.

Nearly every team leverages these technologies to a degree, but how much more productive could your team be if a coordinated, expert plan was put in place – one based on the best practices and the latest IT tech solutions? 

5. Improved Security

A lack of planning means that far too much is left up to chance, and one of the areas that take the biggest hit when that happens is data security. Nowhere is data security more important than in the healthcare industry; in fact, the government requires a certain level of responsibility on the part of providers, and if expectations are not met, your practice can be held financially responsible and subjected to heavy fines.

Key Takeaways

  • The healthcare industry is facing IT challenges due to an explosion of data, a strict regulatory environment, and other factors.
  • By increasing efficiency in data collection and an effective IT plan, healthcare organizations can protect their employees and patients.
  • Healthcare providers are turning to solutions like data as a service to effectively manage, store and secure sensitive information.

In many ways, healthcare is one of the most rapidly changing sectors of the American economy. With pressures from a growing influx of patient data, legal requirements, and increasing costs, healthcare IT personnel are looking for innovative management and storage solutions. By implementing a well-thought-out IT plan, healthcare organizations can improve their efficiency, as well as keep their vital information safe in today’s online world.

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