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Coronavirus: How PCs in quarantine and intensive care units can be managed remotely

NHS IT staff generally have limited access to deployed devices, especially if that device is in an operating theatre or intensive care unit

The University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW) has used chip management technology built into Intel processors to enable it to manage PC devices.

While the pandemic presented immense challenges for the NHS, among the areas of work that may not make the headlines is the fact that clinicians require access to PC equipment as part of their job. If these devices stop working, it can affect patient care.

Describing the challenges, Chris Brett, PC support technician at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW), says: “Typically, my team have been on the front line, in the office every single day. When there is an issue, my team has to fix it.”

The PC support team manages user devices comprising 8,000 desktops, 3,000 laptops, a couple of thousand iPads, display screens, printers and medical label printers.

Even before Covid-19, especially in areas such as intensive care units or restricted labs, PPE was required and IT support staff were only granted access when no patients or medical staff were present.

While UHBW uses remote desktop support and Wake on LAN tools to manage devices remotely, Brett says: “Before Covid-19, the issue we came across was that if a PC in theatre isn’t working, in first line support we’d need to scrub up to fix the issue in theatre.” This represents at least half an hour of downtime, which may prevent theatre staff from accessing medical records, potentially delaying surgery.

The need to reduce the risk of infection has become an even bigger priority since the pandemic struck, but so has the need for tech to keep performing. While PC support teams are well-versed in remote desktop management, Brett says that most PC support tools need Windows to run, adding: “If Windows isn’t loading, we had to wheel in a new PC.”

Intel has been working with UHBW to tackle the challenges around IT management by deploying Intel’s vPro platform across multiple sites to enable remote support. This technology enables IT teams to manage devices remotely, giving them hardware-level access to everything from desktops and laptops to digital signs and display screens.

Intel Active Management Technology, which is part of the vPro platform, is a free tool from Intel to enable device management across wired and wireless networks. It works even when the device is not running or if the operating system is corrupted.

Since the Intel vPro platform runs software at the PC Bios level, it does not require an operating system to run. As a result, if Microsoft Windows fails to start, Brett says his team “can reimage the PC remotely”.

For UHBW, this means that the Intel technology can be used to provide secure remote access to PC equipment in ICU and other critical departments.

In the past, the PC support could only gain access to PCs in the operating theatre outside of office hours and at weekends, which could mean that a device would be unavailable for days. However, with vPro, the team can manage PCs entirely remotely, so there is no need to be physically in the same room as the device

As an example, Brett says the vPro technology helped his team to problem-solve a PC failing to start in the operating theatre: “A few weeks back,  a call came in that a PC in theatre was stuck at the logging in screen.”

He adds that the team was able to unlock the PC over the network and, since it was equipped with Wi-Fi, IT support was able to use the Intel management console to determine that the network cable had been unplugged.

This led to a conversation with theatre staff along the lines of: “Is the red cable plugged into a port on the wall? Is there a second port?”. This, says Brett, enabled the team to talk theatre staff through the process of plugging in the ethernet cable to fix the network login issue. 

When the pandemic struck, Brett says the team made kitting out vPro-equipped PCs in ICU a priority. The vPro technology enabled the PC support teams to have PCs wheeled into quarantine areas. “We can remote into that PC, and just bang on a new image in half an hour and have it up and running,” he adds.

Brett says UHBW now has 250 vPro equipped PCs and 200 non-vPro computers, which can be managed using Intel’s free endpoint management tool. He says that each device just needs a 3 MB software client that can be downloaded from the Intel website.

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