Take Two VPN and Call Me in the Morning: Why Healthcare Solution Providers Rely on VPNs to Avoid IT Headaches
By Robert Dutt
For resellers and other IT solution providers supporting healthcare clients, VPN is ubiquitous a tool as is the stethoscope their customers use every day
Fellow solution provider Stemp Systems Group, out of Long Island City, NY, considers the technology as an equally important component of its healthcare business. President and founder, Morris Stemp, says the company currently maintains some 750 VPN-based connections to its clients.
So, why are VPNs so critical for healthcare solution providers? For one, VPNs are a significant part of the infrastructure these providers deploy and maintain for their customers. And, VPNs are the platform on which to build new applications and solve deep-seeded customer problems.
“Part of the Infrastructure”
Both EZ MSP and Stemp offer managed IT services for healthcare clients -- from doctors’ offices to hospitals. This means, in some cases, the solution providers act as a completely outsourced IT department -- especially for many smaller clients. To successfully do this, solution providers need a VPN to quickly access technology on clients’ networks and to make sure everything is running as smoothly as possible.
“We look at [VPN] as part of the infrastructure,” Birnbaum says. “It’s also a service opportunity that’s covered under the company’s support contract with their customers.”
Stemp says that with just an IP address, his company can connect to any of its clients in seconds. To maximize uptime for customers’ mission-critical systems, the company rolls out dual redundant firewalls and Internet connections with clients.
“They simply must always be active in order for us to provide our service to our customers,” he adds.
Also, because the healthcare industry is so highly regulated, VPNs are an apt tool for connecting to medical facilities. In fact, security requirements force most medical offices to have firewalls in place to protect electronic medical records, Stemp says.
“HIPAA requires [medical organizations] have [firewall] technology available, and we take advantage of that functionality,” he says.
And from a managed service provider’s point of view, VPNs offer an elegant and efficient way to have instant access anywhere into a customer’s infrastructure, even amid the myriad devices on diverse networks spread out around a region or even the world.
“It means we’re supporting a centralized appliance as opposed to individually configuring every computer on the network for remote access,” Birnbaum points out.
“It’s Very Different than the Way Most People Use VPNs”
But infrastructure – the plumbing aspect of a technology solution – only goes so far for a reseller. To truly show their customers value and help move them into new levels of efficiency and productivity, solution providers have to continually offer innovation and new functionality.
Although it may seem like a simple and obvious way to use a VPN, Stemp says the biggest game-changer for many of his clients is actually being able to securely connect to data on the customer network away from the office.
“It totally changed the lives of our doctors, who no longer had to rush to the office to check records when a patient calls up outside of business hours,” Stemp says.
Remote access also significantly changed Stemp’s own customer support models. Before remote access, much of the company’s support requirements were during business hours, from an office. But with easy and ubiquitous access anywhere or anytime, Stemp says he has to provide more responsive service for multiple locations at any time, 24/7.
"It magnified our support requirements," Stemp says. "When [clients] can't connect, we now have to diagnose that. And that includes on weekends and nights when we were effectively closed."
Tablet computing is emerging as the next frontier for remote access to electronic medical records. Although Stemp initially struggled with a functional and reliable VPN connection to the Apple iPad, he says, the company has crossed that hurdle and now has doctors using tablets both in the office and securely from just about anywhere.
The biggest challenge remains the lack of electronic medical records applications designed for the touch interface of the iPad or Android-based tablets.
“We need iPad apps from the EMR companies,” he says. “Right now, you’re essentially just doing terminal services to your desktop, and navigating information that’s designed for a 19-inch screen on your nine-inch tablet screen.”
For EZ MSP, VPNs that meet a very specific customer need opens new revenue streams. For instance, in order for medics to be reimbursed for keeping an eye on some key vital sign measurement systems during surgery, those eyes must belong to an MD. But keeping a doctor on-hand for every surgery in every surgical suite is impractical and inefficient. However, since the eyes on the monitor don’t have to be in the surgical suite, EZ MSP sometimes uses a VPN to connect from the surgical suite to a doctor’s office. This way, a remote doctor can monitor the systems in real-time over the network – making this a much more efficient and scalable model.
“It’s still extending the network, but it’s very different than the way most people use VPNs,” Birnbaum adds.
The Cloud Effect
Cloud computing is a megatrend that’s reshaping almost every aspect of the technology industry today, but providers have different perspectives on how their clients are thinking about the cloud.
EZ MSP’s Birnbaum says because critical line-of-business applications are still not offered in hosted or Software-as-a-Service models, the cloud isn’t “much of a factor” for many customers. But that’s not to say that EZ MSP is steering clear of the trend entirely.
“We are pushing people towards going to hosted [Microsoft] Exchange,” Birnbaum points out.
At Stemp, they’re hosting as many as 40 virtual servers for some of their larger clients in Stemp’s own data center, building a private cloud environment, and other clients are re-architecting their own server room or data center for a more flexible, elastic, cloud-like structure.
In both cases, Stemp says, VPN connections remain a key enabling tool.
“It just makes it much easier to get to those hosted services,” he says.