The NHS aims to be fully computerised by 2005, connecting 1.2 million staff in hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries through one huge broadband network.
This ambitious project promises to provide patients with faster, more comprehensive care. However, with the NHS looking to become more technology driven, what would happen if this technology should not perform? Would patient care be compromised?
For hospitals, the wide area network could, increasingly, become a lifesaving tool by enabling huge radiology files and other critical data to be accessed instantly throughout the NHS network.
However, there are risks associated with putting records online – these critical files will have to run alongside administrative functions such as payroll and procurement, as well as employees’ private internet use. All these applications need to run concurrently without jamming the network.
The experience of US hospitals reliant on Wans has shown that the transfer of huge radiology files between two specialists at different hospitals can easily total a Gigabyte, slowing that part of the network to a virtual standstill for an hour or more.
If this traffic is fighting for bandwidth with other critical data transfers, administrative applications or regular web-browsing, it could result in serious network congestion.
As with any organisation, this kind of congestion costs time and money. Unlike most commercial organisations, however, congestion on the NHS network could also compromise patient healthcare.
There are, unfortunately, many illnesses from which the time from diagnosis to treatment has to be measured in minutes or hours rather than days. Network congestion could have fatal consequences.
To prevent this happening, the NHS must plan a long-term strategy that takes into account the experiences of both commercial enterprises and US hospitals. These organisations are introducing quality of service infrastructures that can be implemented without significant risk to the existing network – for example, overlay infrastructures.
Second, they are implementing technology to control the performance of individual applications. This delivers bandwidth to critical applications, and restricts - but still provisions - bandwidth to non-critical applications.
When there is a shortage of bandwidth, congestion and unpredictable performance will reduce efficiency. A strong argument can also be made that network congestion carries more significant consequences in healthcare than it does in any other industry.
The move towards IT in the NHS opens up huge potential for improving patient care, but it must build an infrastructure with safeguards guaranteeing that its broadband network will run efficiently.
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Roger Hockaday is EMEA marketing director for Packeteer