Doctors require anywhere anytime access to applications and files at hospitals they serve. If a critical situation arises with a patient when the attending physician is not onsite, it can literally be a matter of life or death.
Physicians gain remote access to the applications and files over an extranet or Virtual Private Network (VPN). Putting an extranet VPN in place or upgrading an existing system is no simple matter. For Oakwood Healthcare of Dearborn, Michigan, a major overhaul was imperative due to serious deficiencies in remote access with its system.
With four acute-care hospitals and 44 primary care and specialty-care sites, Oakwood required a VPN solution. Dan Paton, Oakwood information services advisor, laments, "We had a legacy remote access system that used dial-up access. Performance was really poor. It wasn't reliable." The system was so bad that physicians used Web-based email providers like Hotmail to communicate. "The doctors were not able to use the system for anything critical."
The clunky dinosaur was not only unreliable, it was also expensive because it accessed email through1-800 dial-up numbers. "We wanted to reduce the cost with a more efficient high-speed solution," says Paton. Oakwood decided to outsource the process. Some large telecommunication firms provided the service, but when "we talked to our peers in the health industry who were using those systems, we discovered they were not happy."
A Different Breed of Extranet
The ease of access from anywhere is an integral part of Oakwood's solution. Many service providers offer VPNs, but require the client to install software on its computer to access the network. That immediately limits access. Oakwood chose a VPN service provider without such limitations: Aventail of Seattle, Washington. Paton also was also impressed that "Aventail's specialty is VPN services, while the larger vendors just do VPN on the side."
Aventail has been providing VPN solutions since 1996. Originally offering its product as a software purchase, Aventail has shifted to offering it only as part of a managed extranet and VPN services. Based upon a different technological approach, no client software is needed on the user's computer.
The Aventail approach also offers advantages that shorten the deployment time, reduces development costs, and simplifies the process. Tim Claxton, Aventail senior products marketing manager, explains that its system requires no application modification. This saves time and money in not having to modify the software a user needs to access the network. Many applications remain fully functional in the new system "without requiring any changes to the internal infrastructure."
A key for meeting the needs of Oakwood was that the applications through the VPN should operate as they do in the hospitals. Aventail's software has "very low impact on the desktop," Claxton states.
The first step, known as the proof of concept, is to put in a pilot system to test the applications for functionality with a limited set of users. The supplier completed this initial phase over the summer of 2001. Following successful testing, the VPN went live in September 2001.
Paton recalls how smooth it was. "It was very easy. We limited it initially to access for our corporate email and our intranet site. The integration was pretty clean. No interface problems."
Just What the Doctor Ordered
The outsourcing solution provided the prescription to remedy the woes of the physicians, says Paton. "Doctors need a simple, reliable system. The Aventail system essentially points the way for access through portals in our firewall, allowing our users to get in remotely regardless of configuration or ISP. They really appreciate it." The doctors now have access anytime any place that they can get on the Internet.
"It has taken a huge load off of our IT staff. We are better organized. It helps us track things more efficiently. It is seamless and transparent," Paton continues. Aventail has solved extranet access problem and taken the voodoo out of VPN for Oakwood. "It is a modular solution where we can just keep plugging new applications in with relative ease, as it is scalable," he adds.
Aventail services are easy to budget because there are no technology upgrades issues or procurement costs. "The burden is on Aventail to ensure that the system is state of the art," says Paton. The outsource service provider's expertise from years of VPN technology as a core business is critical. Thompson says, "Hospitals should explore outsourcing as an alternative."
Outsourcing has proven to be the cure for the VPN ills at Oakwood. The extent of the success can clearly be seen by Paton when he says, "They provide a 24/7 toll-free number that our help desk will use if needed. But I can honestly tell you that there has never been a need to use it."
Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:
- Outsourcing enables fulfillment in difficult complex technological processes.
- Select a service provider who is a specialist at the outsourced task, not one who does it as a sideline. Core business expertise and technology developed by the service provider shortens deployment time and issues.
- Critical care needs a communication system that is reliable and secure. Outsourcing a VPN can solve a hospital's email needs.