McKesson HBOC has teamed with Nortel Networks, a technology services company, to offer healthcare providers a way to send images and voice, video and digital data over a single transmission line.
That technical capability can help providers manage multimedia information technology at a lower cost and with greater security, industry observers said.
The partnership, announced at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society convention in February, seeks to distinguish itself as a single point of contact for the range of services involved in operating a sophisticated network.
The all-in-one networks aren't new to healthcare, said Michael Gorsage, senior manager in the Alpharetta, Ga., office of First Consulting Group. All the top telecommunications companies are working with healthcare information technology partners to establish similar networks, he said.
For example, Cisco Systems is working to develop such networks with Shared Medical Systems, a Malvern Pa.-based information systems and services company, and telecommunications carrier AT&T Corp., he said.
And 3Com earlier this month announced a collaboration with nine technology companies, including Dell Computer and Microsoft Corp., to push the pace of convergence.
Nortel, a global telecommunication network design and implementation firm based in Canada, already packages data and voice for other industries. Its recent agreement, through McKesson HBOC's Atlanta-based Connect Technology Group, seeks a foothold in healthcare.
The venture links healthcare's largest information and supply services company with a hulking technical partner to apply multibillion-dollar muscle to the integration of diverse systems, including hospitals, physician practices and ancillary facilities.
Those healthcare systems face an uphill climb to coordinate operations in many locations and to share information efficiently, whether it's being sent across the hall or across town.
The infrastructure to make that communication possible must be speedy, reliable and able to handle multiple forms of data transmission simultaneously.
"Most of these networks can be enormously complicated just to make sure everything is up and running," said Doug O'Boyle, program director for healthcare at Meta Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based information technology research firm.
With the advent of computer networks, healthcare organizations began building infrastructures of cables, switches and connections to outside communication lines so they could share computer applications and data over short and long distances.
More recently, advances in video communications have increased demands for networks to send and receive telemedicine transmissions and to facilitate videoconferences.
Providers also see the benefit of sending diagnostic images, such as computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging, over digital networks. But system users must contend with huge files that often crawl through communication lines and slow all other computer traffic.
To guarantee performance, each type of file typically is sent over a separate network, but that's duplicative, expensive and difficult to make secure, O'Boyle said. Routing all traffic through a single high-speed line improves network management and creates economies of scale, he said.
Staten Island (N.Y.) University Hospital spends $3.5 million per year to operate a high-speed data network, a videoconferencing network and a sophisticated voice communications network, said Steve Kuziel, the hospital's director of telecommunications. The provider system is testing the Nortel unified network as adapted for healthcare.
By merging all networks into the one that now handles data, the healthcare system can save $500,000 per year without reducing services, Kuziel said. The move also eliminates redundant management of parallel networks and creates a single point of accountability for network problems and central management of data security, he said.
The university medical center has worked with HBO & Co., one of two predecessors of San Francisco-based McKesson HBOC, and Bay Networks, now a division of Nortel, during the past two years to build a network infrastructure that serves 200 locations outside the main campus in Staten Island and in Brooklyn (May 11, 1998, p. 66).
The infrastructure is dedicated to fast transmissions and the ability to whisk complex data such as diagnostic images around the system without incident.
Until now, the project had covered only the data-transmission side of network management, he said. The transmission lines use a high-capacity technology called asynchronous transfer mode, or ATM, to send large files much faster.
But even high-volume, high-capacity networks can be stressed by the addition of voice and full-motion playback capabilities on top of a heavy traffic load of data and diagnostic images, said Winston Estridge, a senior vice president for marketing, sales and services at Nortel. Merging all these types of data calls for high capacity and the ability to set priorities for certain transmissions to reduce competition for a clear path, Estridge said.