A Load Off Our CPU: How Meraki Helped Our Hospital Save Lives and Stress
I'm strolling back to the office on a nice sunny day. As soon as I walk through the doorway, everyone screams at once, "The computers are all down!" I rush to my station under the watchful eyes of my manager, director, and various other irritated staff. I try every fix I know, but nothing I do can get us back running. I desperately call the service providers, but the problem is on our end.
Suddenly, I start sweating enough to fill up a kiddie pool. Fortunately, that's usually when I wake up from my nightmare.
I know the story is silly, but anyone who has worked in Information Technology (IT) knows this source of anxiety well. No matter the organization or its purpose, no one thinks about the technology until it stops working. When that happens, everything else stops until we solve the problem; and if everything is at a standstill, pressure from the executives continues to build. That pressure can cause ongoing anxiety and unfortunate dreams.
Thankfully, I’ve found a way to rest a bit easier at night.
A Deeper Mission
As a child, I was constantly tinkering with computers. Before I even started college I already had a summer of experience serving as tech support at my high school. At Truman State University, I was lucky enough to work as an IT admin for one of the academic divisions. During that time, I also first learned Linux and Perl, and helped the school move from Token Ring to Ethernet. It seems that I was always destined to work behind the scenes keeping the technology running smoothly.
Working with Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) is incredible because keeping technology running is a critical part of patient care and saving lives. I love knowing that everyday people are being helped through my tinkering. There is nothing better than finding purpose in something you truly enjoy.
HSHS was founded in 1875 by the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis after coming to America from Germany. Over the years, the Hospital Sisters established hospitals across Illinois and Wisconsin. Today, HSHS has grown to 15 hospitals with hundreds of community-based health centers and clinics. While the Hospital Sisters are no longer as active with the hospitals, their legacy lives on through current HSHS colleagues. They have entrusted us to continue their legacy of exceptional patient care, centered on the whole person. By following this vision and staying committed to providing care to all who need it, the system has been able to continue to provide high-quality patient care even through uncertain times.
The good thing about working for a non-profit hospital system like HSHS is that the organization's mission is providing high-quality care, not creating dividends for stockholders. This approach means we are able to provide millions of dollars in community benefit each year. Our CIO often reminds us, in fact, that the first duty in our informal job description is saving lives.
The Challenge of Old Systems
As one of the largest health systems in the state, we have more than one hundred separate operations throughout central and southern Illinois. Our hundreds of clinicians and nurses see thousands of patients every single day. As our patient volumes increased over the years, we noticed our ongoing impact in these geographic areas was immeasurable and that our technology infrastructure was quickly becoming obsolete.
This led to three separate problems that were converging quickly to a point of no return.
Because of the age of our fleet of firewalls, we were approaching the point where they would no longer receive software upgrades. In IT, this end-of-service date is essentially the expiration date of a product. Beyond this date, our vendor would no longer provide the vital security patches that keep us protected from hackers. We had no choice but to upgrade our systems to keep our information secure.
Another problem with our aging infrastructure was constant downtime. While each of our offices was connected to the same virtual private network, they all had their own internet service provider (ISP). Some of these ISPs operated in rural areas and did not have the best connection speed or reliability. As a result, our district offices were constantly shutting down because of computer or networking issues.
In a clinical setting, technology failures mean stressed-out staff and canceled appointments. While there are plenty of routine appointments, most of the people who visit our clinics require some sort of medical care or procedure. Canceling appointments can seriously impact our patient's perspective of our trustworthiness and professionalism. Each of these appointments is also a missed opportunity for revenue, making shutdown periods very costly for the system.
When clinics continue to operate during technology failures, it means patients are served by staff that are stressed out. Anxious caregivers may not be able to provide patients with the kind of attentive consideration that demonstrates true concern.
Because our HSHS Medical Group facilities are spread across the state, constant downtime resulted in overworked technicians. Each outage meant a colleague had to drive an hour to the site, fix the problem, and then drive another hour to return to their workstation. This is in addition to any daily system maintenance assignments. As these downtime events became more frequent, our IT personnel began to feel more burdened with unnecessary interruptions.
A Failsafe Option with Cisco Meraki
When we decided to upgrade our technology, we began looking for options that could better manage multiple sites. We chose Cisco Meraki because it was a cloud-based system that allowed an internet connection failure to automatically result in accessing a second ISP. That was a powerful tool for keeping our clinics online and serving customers.
Because of that backup function, today when we contact our clinics to discuss primary ISP failures, they often do not know anything changed. By using cellular modems for the backup connection, we were also able to provide a second option for rural areas. This switch effectively ended the era of constant office shutdowns and canceled appointments.
A Seamless Upgrade
Anyone who has upgraded an entire Virtual Private Network (VPN) to a new framework knows the potential nightmare. Because we serve over one hundred offices in locations throughout Illinois, we were potentially facing a two-year process. Once we understood Meraki's setup, we found it to be even easier and more intuitive. Major credit goes to my colleague Ryan Gamber who took the lead on implementation after we chose the design strategy.
We were effectively able to use a Meraki template to quickly create communication protocols with the new hardware. Connecting to the cloud meant this new configuration process could be accomplished from anywhere, instead of in each office during installation. Technicians were spending less time in each office and were, therefore, able to complete several installations each day.
This cloud-based process allowing multiple configurations at a time shrunk an estimated one-year installation process into six months. Many of the office installations took less than an hour, and with minimal interruptions to staff. In the span of two seasons, we had a new system in place with brilliantly consistent service.
A More Reliable Connection for Saving Lives
Almost immediately, our organization began to recognize the higher bar we set. Service interruptions became infrequent problems to solve, rather than everyday occurrences. Doctors and staff had a better connection with our patients since they were no longer worried about the constant service losses. In the last year, we prevented 680 hours of downtime in our clinic locations.
From an IT perspective, the system was also much easier to maintain. The cloud-based application meant we could check the connection performance within each office without leaving our desks. If problems did happen, we could thoroughly study the long-term trends with the knowledge that customers were being assisted. In most cases, the service outages we did address were completely unnoticed by the staff in the relevant office.
We also love that office changes can be updated easily through the cloud. That gives our hospital system the flexibility to respond to changes in patient numbers by sending more doctors where they are needed. Technology within our organization is officially a tool that enhances our operations.
Now that we are running smoothly, we are looking forward to the next updates. We are so impressed with Meraki's service and the easy installation process that we plan to upgrade the rest of our clinic sites to Cisco Meraki.
In fact, we expect this new generation of cloud-based networking to literally become a lifesaver for our organization and its patients. At the end of the day, that is the mission of HSHS. Reducing the time, effort, and interference caused by an aging infrastructure allows us to return the focus to serving people. We want to set the bar for hospital administration and patient outcomes in the Midwest.
And I want to keep getting a good night's sleep.