Jul 15 2022

Tips for Senior Care Organizations on Upgrading Their Network Infrastructure

Rapid technology adoption during the pandemic demonstrated the need for robust network infrastructures in senior care. Here are some considerations for organizations looking to upgrade.

Emerging technologies such as companion robots, artificial intelligence, and zero UI devices, coupled with the growing popularity of virtual reality, wearables and mobile devices can make a huge difference in resident experiences, patient care and clinician workflows within senior living and post-acute environments.

However, despite increased adoption of smart technologies among older adults, many senior care organizations have a limited technology infrastructure, especially from a connectivity perspective.

“When connectivity has been deployed, it may be narrow in scope and may provide specific operational functions, like controlling physical access in and out of the building or security camera monitoring in shared spaces. There may be limited guest or resident Wi-Fi services in public spaces, but they are usually islands of service and not available facilitywide,” says Allison Norfleet, global healthcare lead for industry solutions at Cisco.

According to a recent HealthTech Twitter poll, approximately 30 percent of senior care IT leaders reported that their organization hasn’t upgraded its network infrastructure in more than five years.

Norfleet explains that in an independent senior living organization, residents can often make their own technology decisions. They may pay the organization a fee to provide security, maintenance or basic networking in their room, giving the resident personalized Wi-Fi and possibly offering other services. Assisted living organizations can be like independent living, but they also include additional services and capabilities such as nurse call solutions in patient rooms, personal and staff duress alarms, and communication among the staff and care team.

“Many times, older assisted living or long-term-care organizations will have an infrastructure that involves cabling and radio technology. This makes deployment of newer networking solutions expensive to implement and maintain, while new construction can leverage lower cost Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks to deliver services to its residents and staff,” says Norfleet.

However, Wi-Fi can be beneficial for patients, residents and clinicians in senior care. Connectivity proved essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most senior care organizations went on lockdown. Older adults were able to talk with their families through video calls when visitors were restricted. Without such connection, older adults in senior living communities are more prone to feelings of depression or isolation. In addition, with more older adults adopting smart technology and using streaming services, offering a robust internet connection provides a competitive market advantage to senior living organizations, according to Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and business strategy, and executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST).

Wi-Fi capabilities also are important to support clinician workflows and patient care. Many wearables and medical devices connect to the internet to send biometric and other data to clinicians and caregivers. Virtual care solutions such as telesitting and telehealth support clinicians amid nationwide healthcare staff shortages which, in turn, improves the patient experience.

To support these technology initiatives, senior care organizations need a robust networking infrastructure that can handle the influx of technologies and devices relying on Wi-Fi.

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When Should a Senior Care Organization Upgrade Its Network?

With the rapid adoption of telehealth and other technologies during the pandemic, senior care organizations may have upgraded service from their internet provider, but their network infrastructure may be limiting their bandwidth, says Alwan.

“Even if they were to upgrade, if they only have a copper network for a large campus, they probably need to install a fiber-optic backbone to the individual buildings, if not to the individual units,” he says. “If you observe the users of the internet, their demand on bandwidth increases by 50 percent year over year, which means that this is an exponential growth in demand for bandwidth. Many of our members were not prepared for this trend, let alone the sudden increase in demand on bandwidth during the pandemic.”

According to Norfleet, a senior care organization’s management team should consider the needs of the senior care market, the overall strategy for the organization and what services it wants to provide to its residents. 

“With the staffing shortages in play, how will the organization support the clinical teams on staff for residents who need various levels of care?” asks Norfleet. “Will they use clinical communication tools, remote monitoring of vitals, virtual care, asset location? In the end, a mission-critical component of each organization’s success will depend upon having a strong foundation or IT infrastructure that aligns to the organization’s short- and long-term business and connectivity needs.”

She explains that a senior care organization’s entire technology stack will need to be evaluated to determine its current state. IT will need to work with the organization’s leadership team to align their business goals with a well-developed technology strategy, which should include people, processes and technology.

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Considerations for Senior Care Organizations on Upgrading Networks

The pandemic accelerated technology adoption in the senior living and post-acute spaces. While the landscape was already evolving before the pandemic, it was changing at a much slower pace. Norfleet says this means many organizations have legacy equipment in use that needs to be brought onto the network, including VHF radios, radio-frequency identification alarms, closed-circuit TV security cameras and more.

“This convergence can happen with a migration to an edge environment. The main goal of any senior care organization is to meet the needs of its residents and to ensure that the patient care delivered is just as safe and reliable as if they were in an acute or post-acute care setting,” says Norfleet. “In a digital age, that requires advanced network infrastructure to keep patient data secure and easily accessible for care providers and their families.”

A senior care organization undergoing a network infrastructure upgrade will need to manage the disruption within its organization and build a connected digital strategy that ensures speed, resiliency, stakeholder engagement and profitability for the future.

Norfleet says the most common pain point is the historical adoption of a single-purpose network for specific solutions and the legacy infrastructure deficit that created.

“For example, look at RFID-based staff duress solutions. The market solutions today are end-of-support, and their replacements are expensive,” she says. “Care facilities need to ask very specific questions that highlight the value of IT and operational technology convergence.”

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It’s also important that senior care leadership and IT teams work with staff and residents to ensure the technology implementation is successful. Organizations should consider supporting stakeholders through help desks and concierge services. LeadingAge CAST provides a Resident/Client Technology Support and Training resources, including a white paper, interactive guide and case studies, to help senior care providers approach technical support and training for residents.

Doug McDonald, technology director in the office of the CTO at Extreme Networks, says organizations should have a sufficiently robust switching and routing infrastructure, with Wi-Fi on the edge, to provide needed services. He emphasizes the need for ubiquitous Wi-Fi, available throughout an organization’s campus, to connect residents and patients with desired services.

“If you don’t have the Wi-Fi technology, hardware and infrastructure to facilitate the needed bandwidth, then the applications overlaying it might not perform well and your organization may have bandwidth limitations that inhibit video quality,” he says.

In addition to meeting the high-availability requirements that staff and patient health and safety demand, says Norfleet, new networking solutions should centralize management, adopt zero-touch deployment models, provide service orchestration and automate security updates. 

Which Network Technology Should Senior Care Organizations Choose?

Implementation of a facilitywide enterprise network creates connectivity and becomes the foundation to build upon for the resident, caregiver and guest experience, explains Norfleet. Every network implementation needs to incorporate security policies and procedures for a secure experience. She says that, in addition to network infrastructure upgrades, senior care organizations may also need to:

  • Replace expensive legacy VHF radios with less expensive, hardened smart devices
  • Replace legacy RFID staff duress and nurse call alarms with active Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy solutions integrated into a cloud-based location services platform
  • Replace aging closed-circuit TV security camera networks with cloud-managed, high-definition smart cameras
  • Leverage a cloud-based location services platform, such as Cisco DNA Spaces, during the replacement of failing or aging passive unit-based patient elopement controls with active solutions that integrate room occupancy information into unit or facility-based dashboards, to reduce staff stress and activities related to wandering

The advent of Wi-Fi 6E offers the potential for high bandwidth because it’s on a new spectrum that hasn’t been used before, says McDonald, noting that it could be very advantageous for providing care in senior living and post-acute organizations as more use cases arise. 

OpenRoaming technology is another network upgrade option that promises to improve the senior care resident, care team and visitor experience.

“OpenRoaming enables residents, staff and visitors at senior care organizations to connect seamlessly and securely to the Wi-Fi network without needing to enter login credentials, making the network more accessible,” says Norfleet. “It ensures a connected experience from the parking lot, with a seamless transition onto the secure wireless network of the organization using public identity providers. No captive portal is required.”

Alwan recommends senior care organizations upgrade to a fiber backbone if possible to ensure adequate bandwidth not only for today, but for the next five or 10 years as bandwidth demand continues to rise. He also suggests having separate networks for residents, operations and possibly even visitors and partners, to protect the organization from cyberthreats.

The Importance of Partnerships in Senior Care Networking

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allots $65 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure. Of that funding, $42.5 billion is being allocated to a broadband infrastructure deployment program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which will administer the funding through state grants. Alwan recommends that senior care organizations, especially larger organizations with locations in multiple counties, partner with their state to receive some of the grant funding.

IT partnerships are equally important. McDonald says administrators at senior living organizations should consider cloud-based technologies that are scalable and easy to manage across multiple locations. This involves shifting from a capital to an operational spending model.

“You don’t just buy infrastructure every six years and then refresh it because there’s another Wi-Fi solution or business demand. You’d need a big chunk of money to upgrade your system every six or seven years,” he says. “Now, with cloud-based capabilities, you pay for what you consume. You can also pay a subscription and get the most modern technology, which is a great model for senior living organizations.”

He compares the subscription model to getting an updated cable box from a cable provider, which can help senior care IT teams future proof their organization.

Hiring an in-house team with the expertise needed to design, implement and support an upgraded networking infrastructure would be expensive, and experts can be difficult to retain long-term.

Doug McDonald
A technology investment will be more successful if it is designed and installed correctly out of the gate, so that when a senior care organization invests, it gets the performance it deserves.”

Doug McDonald Technology Director in the Office of the CTO, Extreme Networks

While many solutions and services claim 100 percent resiliency, McDonald points out that there may still be times when network issues arise due to internet pipes, servers or external power grid issues.

“No matter what you do, there will be outages sometimes. But having a vendor focused on uptime and resiliency is key,” he says, adding that understanding an organization’s infrastructure and having the availability to help with IT issues are other important factors to consider when choosing a technology partner.

McDonald says it’s also important for senior care organizations to choose a vendor that can help them pick the right technologies for their organization and support them through the implementation and management of the solutions. He suggests senior care leadership look for technology partners who offer simplicity.

“A lot of organizations don’t have the resources or money to design and install an appropriate network infrastructure,” he says. “A technology investment will be more successful if it is designed and installed correctly out of the gate, so that when a senior care organization invests, it gets the performance it deserves.”

“Internet used to be a luxury,” adds Alwan. “However, in this day and age, especially after the pandemic, I believe it has become a right, and I would encourage everyone to jump on board and make it available to their residents.”

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