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Bridging the IT - OT Divide in Healthcare

10 March 2021

Healthcare facilities sometimes struggle to respond to the operational technology (OT) challenges faced by their facility managers. These challenges range from the internal growing demands for services to the costs of doing so. At the same time, information technology (IT) network managers face criticisms from their internal clients that they fail to meet the demands for wireless connections inside the healthcare facility buildings.

As businesses of all stripes look to close out the first quarter of 2021, the industry has a renewed opportunity to satisfy the needs of both OT and IT stakeholders. The following paragraphs present things the senior management and resellers alike should know about bridging the IT - OT divide.

IT and OT Are No Longer Separate Expertise Storehouses

The interests of managers in IT and OT have converged over the last five years or so. When the IT department fails to deliver on a new OT solution, it often means that the two stakeholders did not collaborate. IT and OT need to work together to determine whether a new OT solution is do-able using the healthcare facility's existing technology infrastructure (e.g. WiFi infrastructure). They need to assess together whether current staff has the skills to work the new OT solution. If the answer to the first question is no, the infrastructure may need to be updated. If the answer to the second question is no, the company may need to hire new staff or set up training for existing staff. These are questions that need addressed at the beginning of the process, not the end.

Up until recently, it was the IT department that was responsible for developing the technology required to collect a facility's data. IT then securely stored that data to make sure it remained secure from cyber hackers. OT, on the other hand, presided over day-to-day facility operations, events, business procedures, and devices. The recent convergence of IT and OT reflects the new reality that IT and OT must integrate.

The Ways that IT/OT Converge

The following are three situations in which healthcare facilities experience IT/OT convergence:

  • Internal structure of the organization, such as workflows of strategic projects
  • Software and data collection require upgrades to the existing technical infrastructure
  • Physical, operational changes, such as when technical infrastructure must be updated and maintained as a regular part of doing business

How to Approach the Convergence

Communication between the departments is the key. For example, when changes to the OT framework require additional cybersecurity parameters, it is up to the IT wizards to bring that idea into the conversation with other stakeholders.

Similarly, when IT decides that cybersecurity needs to be beefed up to protect the business's network from cyber hackers, it is up to OT to explain to IT how the anticipated plans will affect operations at the micro-level.

The two disciplines must create a common goal and work towards that goal in a partnership that looks for success in providing stronger security measures for the IT staff and operational benefits for the OT folks. Cooperation and communication pave the way to successful projects from beginning to end.

How IT Sees Projects

IoT is a complex field as seen through the eyes of IT leaders and staff. It sounds simple: IT's responsibility is to create and maintain the business's infrastructure by:

  • Ensuring security from cyber criminals
  • Providing the ability to scale up/down with respect to solutions needs
  • Manage the network and its components in an atmosphere of continuous activity and multitasking

When IT directors talk about the project development phase, they concern themselves with the technology services needed to build and run an application. This is referred to as the tech stack and runs from the network out to the point that the network connects to third-party network services.

This perspective is quite different from OT's viewpoint.

How OT Sees Projects

OT's responsibility relates to the devices and equipment needed in the healthcare environment. OT is many times saddled with legacy equipment that must be maintained and cobbled together to cooperate with modern software and new components that do not always play well together. In addition, equipment often produces and collects reams of data that doesn't move any further up the chain. Medical device operators make decisions based on data they receive. It's the OT staff that assembles the devices needed when IoT deploys.

How Procurement Fits into the Picture

The procurement contingent is responsible for seeking out the best equipment for the projects and making sure the company pays the right price. When it comes to a project that requires new equipment, procurement's cost directive may require buying equipment piece by piece. The best plan requires the participation of the procurement staff as early as possible in the discussions. The IT and OT stakeholders can impress upon procurement the importance of obtaining all the equipment from the same source, not piece by piece. 

Procurement needs to be on the same page as IT and OT about sourcing new components. There may be other departments that need to be brought in as well.

How New IoT Standards Help OT and IT Work Better Together in Healthcare

Healthcare has historically set hard line demarcations between IT and OT. Digital transformation in the form of IoT, big data, analytics and cloud computing changed that in a big way.  The information that flows from digital technology provides opportunities for other business processes, like OT, to expand their horizons, streamline their processes, and positively impact their performance levels.

From telemedicine to health wearables for glucose monitoring and remote patient monitoring, IoT impacted the healthcare industry in a big way. There are even IoT devices now that can deliver medicine (think IoT inhalers for CPD or the insulin pump for diabetics). And no one can ignore the major advances in surgery with robotic surgical devices that can perform surgical procedures where human hands dare not go.

IoT devices for healthcare represent one of the fastest growing segments of the IoT industry. It is so widespread that some observers call it the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). The market for IoMT is expected to reach $176 billion by 2026.

IoMT devices collect sensitive patient data and then transmit it to software that presents it in a way that patients/doctors can view. Algorithms analyze the data with an eye toward recommending treatment options or issuing health alerts. The personal, sensitive information that IoMT collects naturally gives rise to security concerns about privacy and safety.

It is easy to see the convergence between IT and OT when looking at the examples of healthcare IoT. It becomes critically important to the success of the disruptive technology that the IT/OT departments of the fabricators of these marvels of technology do not sit in silos. Successful deployment of the software and development of the analytical algorithms requires coordination and collaboration that benefits both departments.

Recent events have provided ample proof that IoMT solutions can deliver in key areas. In both the monitoring of vaccine temperatures and enabling contact tracing, IoMT has been of crucial importance in helping to control and contain the spread of COVID. 

Treating OT devices like the insulin pump as critical security is smart. One can only imagine the horrendous results that would flow to the pump user if cyber hackers infiltrated the security of that particular OT. Naturally, the same holds true for other wearables and medical devices in hospitals. Understanding the threats to both IT and OT devices are the key to keeping them safe.

Want to learn more about how to bridge the IT-OT divide in healthcare and why facility managers and IT network leaders benefit together? Join our live webinar with Cisco where e'll focus on the healthcare industry, where both clinical outcomes and return over network investment can both benefit from close cooperation. Save your spot here!

Aneta Ciurkot

Director, Product Marketing

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    [Updated for 2020]
    [Updated for 2020]