Regardless of whether or not you use an EMR system, you may already have computerized billing and scheduling. And if you have multiple computers at your practice, most likely these computers operate on some sort of network. Even if you are not the ‘technical’ person in your practice, you should understand the designs and capabilities of computer networks, especially when a complex, multi-user EMR system is finally put into place.
Below are some basic principles of computer network design you should be familiar with:
Networking Basics (WAN, LAN, or MAN?)
Certain network hardware and system software may be incompatible with some EMR and EPM systems. Obviously, you should know this in advance. If you plan on adding users to your network at a later time, it’s often better to buy multi-user licenses rather than individual retail software packages. You can connect computers and printers in a practice on a Local-Area Network, or LAN. The LAN can link up with other local area networks via wireless connectivity. But be sure to check with the vendor of the EMR software to insure that it can operate on a wireless network.
A Wide-Area Network (WAN) can connect other smaller LANs, or Metro-Area Networks (MANs). Large practices can use these WANs to connect multiple satellite offices over a wide geographic area, for example.
The most recognized WAN is the Internet. The Internet can also create the possibility of an Intranet, or a private Internet, on which employees can communicate and collaborate with each other, regardless of where they are located. For such a system to function well between dispersed offices, a hi-bandwidth connection is a must in order to maintain smooth operations. We use an Intranet for such things as employee manuals, a practice Wiki, staff newsletters, photo sharing, and educational materials.
Bandwidth and Topology
Data capacity, or network Bandwidth, is often measured in bits-per-second (bps). In most cases connection rates range from 56kbps to millions of bits per second. Even so, the rates achievable may be limited by the hardware or sometimes even the software used. Overall speed on the network can be drastically reduced when many users are trying to use the system at the same time. If network speeds are slow because the hardware is underpowered or the network design is bad, ‘fast’ connection speed rates promised by the internet service provider won’t really mean much.
Network Topology is also important. Topology is the ‘shape’ of the network, as in the wiring between a series of computers. This topology should have a clean, intelligent design and not simply daisy-chaining PCs in a random, haphazard way. Optimal topography may mean more wires, but this can contribute to overall system resilience from failure due to a weak spot. Otherwise, if one part of the network fails, the entire network could collapse as a result. Proper topography protects against this sort of situation with redundancies. A network consultant should recommend a good balance between expandability and redundancy.
In most cases, a practice running an EMR system will employ hard-wired computers connected to a server. However, some physicians may prefer to input data via a wireless device, as this can be carried throughout the areas in a practice. However, wireless networks present some new points to address:
Wireless devices have less-than-expected ranges when functioning in an office with many walls. Many consumer-level devices may be inadequate for the needs of a medical practice network. And they may suffer from interference due to common appliances such as microwave ovens or cordless telephones.
The useful speed on your local network can be limited by the speed of your wireless connection, even if your LAN has good bandwidth rates.
A hacker can destroy your network if it isn’t protected. Even simple wireless access points need to have built-in security. This is especially important in the age of HIPAA compliance.
And speaking of security, you can protect yourself further by having what is know as a firewall. These are software programs, either stand-alone or as part of a hardware device, which protect private networks against intrusion from the outside world. These have become relatively inexpensive for the small business, especially compared to the cost of a successful network attack.
Fat or Thin Clients?
Should you employ laptops (fat clients) that directly run software and connect to your network via a wireless connection? Or, should you run the software virtually with a network appliance (thin client) via a remote connection? With wireless networks, disconnects are an unavoidable reality. In this case, the thin client lets the software continue to run, and you can later pick up where you left off. A broken connection on a fat client may cause a software crash. On the other hand, the latter has certain other capabilities such as running video programs.