The benefits of technology in hospitals during COVID-19
We’re currently facing the greatest healthcare challenge of our lifetime, and while many of us stayed at home, teams at NHS and private hospitals are working tirelessly to support people battling COVID-19 as well as those accessing much-needed treatment and care.
At Bupa Cromwell Hospital, we were appointed by NHS England to work with the Royal Marsden Cancer Hub, and since the start of the pandemic, we’ve provided over 500 time-critical cancer surgeries. We’ve also supported the NHS by providing dialysis and medical step-down care to patients and supplied essential equipment, including ventilators to the Nightingale Hospital and local London NHS Trusts.
The virus has fundamentally changed the way we all work, and this is no different in the independent sector. All of us have had to find new ways to support patients – both within our hospitals and remotely.
Connecting consultants and patients virtually
Technology has played a key role in enabling us to continue to care for patients and for consultants to carry on practising. We introduced video consulting platforms such as Visionable earlier than originally planned, which allowed us to continue to provide care to patients while they remain at home.
It’s a new way of working – particularly for patients – and our consultants have been able to conduct their multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meetings on these platforms, meaning they can virtually assess and discuss a patient’s condition and treatment plan to ensure they’re getting the best possible care.
Siilo, a healthcare messenger platform, has also enabled the clinicians in the MDTs to safely and securely share notes, scans and test results between the monthly or fortnightly MDT meetings, despite being miles apart - thus not delaying patient’s treatment and management plans.
These platforms have allowed us to introduce new one-stop pathways, for example for breast care. Following a virtual consultation, patients can come into the hospital and have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy on the same day to avoid multiple visits. They can then have another virtual consultation to discuss the results and the next steps for treatment.
The speed at which the pandemic developed was significant and, as with other independent hospitals, we had to work exceptionally hard to keep pace with our response. While initially we had to act quickly and instinctively, we’re now looking at how we can continue to ensure we’re operating safely and sustainably as the pandemic continues.
For example, we’re continuing to offer virtual consultations to our international patients, as well as those based in the UK, to reduce the need for people to travel to the hospital until they have to.
Medical devices to support high-need patients
Technology has also been vital for us in our new 10-bed intensive care unit. We opened it at the end of March, months earlier than planned, and following a collective effort from the team to support the crisis. The unit is fitted with specialist medical technology which allows the nursing team to adapt each room to the individual needs of each patient. This includes an electronic prescribing system and ‘Smart Glass’ which can change from transparent to opaque, providing privacy to patients and their relatives when they want it.
We also transformed our former intensive care unit into a high dependency unit for patients to receive extensive care following major surgery.
As a result of tech – and a lot of hard work from colleagues – we’re currently a Covid-19 green hospital, meaning we are Covid-free as far as reasonably possible. This is really important for us, especially in the international market. Being Covid-19 green is reassuring for patients and supports the safety and other measures we’ve introduced at the hospital.
Technology has been a huge support to us throughout the pandemic and is enabling us to treat our UK patients at home and our international patients without them needing to travel to the UK. As a result we are ready and well prepared to deal with the second wave of COVID-19.
How healthcare can safeguard itself against cyberthreats
One of the most fundamental lessons from the COVID crisis is that health should always be a priority. In a similar fashion to the human body that frequently fights off viruses and foreign invaders that intend to cause it harm, the sector itself is now a prime target for another type of external threat: cyberattacks.
The figures speak for themselves: between December and January this year, hospitals in the UK were at 89% capacity, with 7,000 fewer available beds than there usually are. As the pandemic increased pressure on hospitals, clinics, and research facilities to create a treatment for patients globally, it has left the sector exposed to hackers who, like a virus, have been targeting it relentlessly and evolving their tactics.
From patient records being held ransom, to fake emails claiming to originate from the UN WHO, the NHS, or vaccine centres, through to attacks on the cold supply chain to find out the secret formula of the COVID vaccine, the healthcare industry is facing constant cyberattacks and struggling to cope. This threat is unlikely to go away anytime soon – and as such, the industry needs to take a proactive, preventative stance to stay safe in a dynamic digital world.
The responsive nature of healthcare – particularly of hospitals – means that efficiency is crucial to the industry’s standard operations. To support this, the sector has been embracing technological advancements that can improve the quality of work, enabling staff to meet pressing deadlines, and enhancing patient care. For example, the industry has been digitising records and improving its ways of working through digital means over the past few years.
This shift is critical to offer high quality patient care; yet, it also means the sector has become more dependent on IT, which can come with a risk if cybersecurity processes employed are deemed as inadequate.
Without the correct security measures in place, the desired efficiency gains realised, can be easily lost in a heartbeat. Simply put, an elementary glitch in the system can have a tremendous ripple effect on many areas, from accessing patient records and conducting scans, to maintaining physical security and protecting the intellectual property of experimental treatment development.
To prevent this, healthcare organisations need to ensure they’re considering cybersecurity as part of their overall digital transformation strategy – and setting the right foundations to create a culture where safety goes hand in hand with patient care.
Before implementing cybersecurity process, healthcare organisations need to assess the potential risks they face. Depending on how much confidential data the trust has, where it is stored, who has access to it and via which means, the cybersecurity strategy and associated solutions will change.
It’s fair to say that a medical device start-up where all employees have a corporate-sanctioned laptop and access data via a VPN will have radically different needs to a large hospital with hundreds of frontline workers connecting to the hospital’s Wi-Fi using their personal device.
These requirements will pale by comparison to a global pharmaceutical giant with offices in multiple locations, a large R&D department researching new treatments for complex diseases and a fully integrated supply chain. Considering the existing setup and what the organisations is looking to achieve with its digital transformation strategy will therefore have an immediate impact on the cybersecurity strategy.
Despite this, there are fundamentals that any organisation should implement:
Review and test your back-up policy to ensure it is thorough and sufficient – By checking that the organisation’s back-up is running smoothly, IT teams can limit any risks of disruption in the midst of an incident and of losing data permanently.
In our recent State of Email Security report, we found that six out of ten organisations have been victims of ransomware in 2020. As a result, afflicted organisations have lost an average of six days to downtime. One third of organisations even admitted that they failed to get their data back, despite paying the ransom. In the healthcare industry, this could mean losing valuable patient records or data related to new treatments – two areas the sector cannot afford to be cavalier about.
Conduct due diligence across the organisation’s supply chain – Healthcare organisations should review their ways of working with partners, providers and regulatory institutions they work with in order to prevent any weak link in their cybersecurity chain. Without this due diligence, organisations leave themselves exposed to the risks of third party-led incidents.
Roll out mandatory cybersecurity awareness training - Healthcare organisations shouldn’t neglect the training and awareness of their entire staff – including frontline workers who may not access the corporate network on a regular basis. According to our State of Email Security report, only one fifth of organisations carry out ongoing cyber awareness training.
This suggests it is not widely considered as a fundamental part of most organisations cyber-resilience strategy, despite the fact many employees rely on their organisation’s corporate network to work. By providing systematic training, healthcare organisations can help workers at all levels better understand the current cyberthreats they face, how they could impact their organisation, the role they play in defending the networks, and develop consistent, good cybersecurity hygiene habits to limit the risks of incidents.
Consider a degree of separation – Information and Operational Technology (IT and OT) networks should be separated.
Although mutually supported and reliance on each other, employees shouldn’t be accessing one via the other. This should be complemented by a considered tried and tested contingency and resiliency plan that allows crucial services to function unabated should there be a compromise. Similarly, admin terminals should not have internet access to afford a degree of hardening and protection for these critical accounts.
As the sector becomes a common target for fraudulent and malicious activity, putting cybersecurity at the core of the organisation’s operations is critical. It will help limit the risks of disruption due to cyberattacks, reduce time spent by the cybersecurity team to resolve easily avoidable errors, and ensure that institutions can deliver patient care, safe in the knowledge that their networks are safe.
Fighting future threats
With technology continuing to change the face of healthcare, the surface area and vectors available for attacks by malicious actors is constantly increasing. With the introduction of apps, networked monitoring devices, and a need for communication, the attack vector is ever expanding, a trend that needs to be monitored and secured against.
To prevent any damage to patients, staff, or the organisation they are responsible for, healthcare leaders must put security front and centre of their digital transformation strategy. Only then can the sector harness the full benefits of technology. Doing this should include implementing cybersecurity awareness training to challenge misconceptions around security, encourage conversation, and to ensure employee knowledge of the security basics and threats faced.
This ultimately allows healthcare organisations to do what they do best: provide the highest standard of patient care, safe in the knowledge that their operations, patients, and data are safe.