Mater Health gives network a facelift

Brisbane-based hospital group Mater Health Services has flagged a wide-ranging upgrade of its internal network as it standardises on kit from vendor Cisco Systems. The upgrade will touch most of Mater's network from the core switching infrastructure out to distribution switches, the edge network and new wireless access points, Mater chief information officer Malcolm Thatcher told ZDNet Australia in a recent telephone interview.

Brisbane-based hospital group Mater Health Services has flagged a wide-ranging upgrade of its internal network as it standardises on kit from vendor Cisco Systems.

The upgrade will touch most of Mater's network from the core switching infrastructure out to distribution switches, the edge network and new wireless access points, Mater chief information officer Malcolm Thatcher told ZDNet Australia in a recent telephone interview.

"What we're looking to do is move to a homogenous platform for our network, with Cisco as a partner," he said, noting the upgrade would be carried out over the next two years.

"Currently, like most organisations, we have a mix of different switches and configurations of those switches and some have power over Ethernet and some don't."

But Mater isn't settling for a normal enterprise network, instead opting for what Cisco describes as "medical grade". This entails building extra resilience into the network's design to ensure downtime is absolutely minimised.

A key feature of the network will be the 500 or so new wireless access points Mater is deploying.

While the hospital group has long used wireless infrastructure internally for remote pharmacy dispensing, the beefed up new hardware will allow new medical applications such as instrument tracking in surgical theatres.

The group has recently gone live with the second phase of just such a project in some of its theatres. The second phase tracks the tools all the way through sterilisation and back -- "360 degrees", according to Thatcher.

The system is a combination of laser instrument marking technology from local company Medical Systems Design, as well as Cisco wireless and touchscreens from Advantech.

Mater put the solution in place in order to minimise the risk of infection within its surgical theatres, as well as improve its accuracy in management of instruments.

The hospital group is also moving slowly towards using voice on its data network. "We're working with partners like Cisco and IBM to look at our best strategy for IP telephony," said Thatcher.

But at least one of Mater's facilities will communicate entirely via IP -- its new mother's hospital, due for completion in early 2008.

In wider communication moves, Mater will also look to extend a recent pilot of Vocera's "Star Trek" style voice badges.

Not just another vendor
Thatcher praised Cisco's understanding of the unique challenges faced in medical environments. "Our survey of the market indicates that Cisco has a genuine commitment to the health vertical," he said.

"They understand the issues that we face, and what we're trying to achieve, in terms of that resilience, failover capability, reliability, QoS, all those factors."

He singled out the wireless access points in particular for their "greater manageability".

Cisco is the second signatory (after IBM) to Mater's Smart Hospital consortium, which aims to use IT to improve health care and outcomes for patients. Intel too, will soon become formally involved.

Keeping busy
Thatcher also has his hands full with a whole slew of other projects.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking of patients (including newborns) is being considered, and a new identity management initiative is also on the cards, in addition to digital dictation and server-based transcription and optical character recognition for form entry.

Then there is the looming issue of records management.

Mater is trying to stay ahead of the curve as the National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA) implements data standards for clinical records.

"We're trying to position ourselves so that when NEHTA finally do publish these standards and ratify them, we will be able to say, 'this clinical information system has these elements that conform to those standards' ... and then interoperability becomes much easier," said Thatcher.

"That will ultimately lead to much better outcomes in terms of an electronic health record."

With so many current IT initiatives, Thatcher passed on some valuable advice to fellow CIOs wondering where to put their focus.

"Any IT project is essentially a business change project," he said.

"The bulk of the energy and the blood, sweat and tears has to go into the business change ... it's really understanding how your business is going to change as a result of using new tools or technologies."

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