Improving connectivity is the route to better health services in the UK

digital connectivity in healthcare

As part of the UK's recent Spring Budget announcement, the UK Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a £3.4 billion fully funded NHS productivity plan to enhance NHS services through digital tools.

This marks a pivotal step towards modernising our healthcare system, with £430 million allocated to increase access and improve services, £1bn to transform the use of data and reduce time spent on administration, and £2bn spent on updating IT systems. This development isn't just about being on the cutting edge of the latest trend; it's about using technology to improve care and extend the reach of quality care through innovation.

However, as hospitals prepare to leverage digital solutions, such as electronic patient records and AI-supported clinicians, it's vital to acknowledge the critical importance of a robust connectivity infrastructure as the foundation of these advancements. Currently, many hospitals and trusts rely on current connectivity systems, such as Wi-Fi, that struggle to meet the demands of modern healthcare services, that, quite frankly, can endanger the quality of healthcare or the patients themselves.

The solution to this challenge in the past involved installing additional fibre cables to the hospital or adding WiFi radios, which could cause contention for the same WiFi bandwidth, therefore only providing minimal improvements. However, this approach is no longer cost-effective as the cost of installing new cables to hospitals has increased. Nor is it scalable, as WiFi radio saturation is almost at its peak to support connectivity within locations.

Why hospitals need to think beyond fixed-line connectivity

With the escalating demand for connectivity infrastructure, hospitals must adopt solutions capable of withstanding the pressure. The increase in IoT devices - both within hospitals and for remote patient monitoring - deployed in the sector is a significant driver towards moving beyond fixed-line connectivity. These devices, ranging from heart rate monitors to pulse oximeters, are used by healthcare professionals to track analytics for patients without the need to come to the hospital. Using cellular connectivity allows for live streaming of data from remote patients to healthcare providers anywhere in the world. Other IoT applications, such as bed and equipment tracking, also alleviate staff stress by reducing the time taken to locate and obtain critical assets, thus enhancing operational efficiency at sites.

Fixed-line connectivity has long served hospitals adequately, but 5G offers a compelling alternative to improve care before patients even arrive at a hospital. For example, by using 5G cellular routers to connect ambulances, paramedics can share vital information during on-scene patient care or en route to the emergency room. Sharing these updates in real-time saves valuable time, allowing care to begin immediately on arrival.

How hospitals can support the shift to community care

Over the last few years, healthcare services have increasingly moved from the hospital to the home and local community. Patients are being encouraged to use wearable devices to take control over their own recovery, providing real-time data to doctors and facilitating remote monitoring and management of chronic conditions. Likewise, pop-up locations and mobile treatment centres help extend healthcare beyond the traditional hospital setting, enabling care providers to offer a more proactive service, and enhance patient convenience.

Why hospitals should consider a private network

As hospitals increasingly rely on connectivity to improve communication between workers, manage inventory, and support pop-up clinics, network infrastructure that ensures full coverage throughout the full facility is critical. Wi-Fi has its limitations, and relying on an unlicensed spectrum may be available, but not necessarily useable due to signal saturation. For example, suppose one user attempts to stream X-rays over a Wi-Fi connection. In that case, their activity can impede the ability of other users to complete administrative tasks, ultimately causing operational problems.

To combat this, hospitals can adopt private cellular networks that operate on a licensed spectrum mitigating interference, while also offering greater coverage, security, and reliability than Wi-Fi. This is important for a few reasons. With a private 5G network, organisations can have more control over which data takes priority. For example, a hospital can prioritise communication between workers, allowing them to share vital information on a patient. This ensures the correct treatment can begin as soon as possible.

Final thoughts

Amidst the complexities of healthcare delivery in the digital age, prioritising robust connectivity infrastructure stands as a cornerstone for driving transformative change. This is only growing in importance as healthcare moves beyond traditional hospital settings and into communities. By embracing cutting-edge 5G technology and transitioning towards private networks, hospitals can lay the connectivity groundwork for more efficient and reliable operations. A strong, secure, and reliable network will translate not only into a better experience for patients, but also better working conditions for NHS staff.

Paul McHugh
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Paul McHugh