Hospital association becomes a network services provider

September 25, 2000

Concerned that the nation's healthcare providers may fail to meet growing technology challenges, the American Hospital Association (AHA) has taken an unusual, metamorphic step by transforming itself into a network service provider. In teaming with

Concerned that the nation's healthcare providers may fail to meet growing technology challenges, the American Hospital Association (AHA) has taken an unusual, metamorphic step by transforming itself into a network service provider.

In teaming with Darwin Networks to offer hospitals and other healthcare-related customers access to a secure, reliable, high-speed data communication network, the AHA hopes to help member institutions address HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) patient data security requirements. Darwin Networks is a veteran firm providing private networking solutions.

If the AHA is correct, hospitals using the private AHA-Darwin network, rather than the familiar though less secure Internet, will be better equipped to rapidly and safely exchange large digital images, transfer electronic medical records, conduct videoconferences and consultations, and manage administrative data (billing, claims, payroll, and accounts receivable).

"This relationship will provide a powerful tool in the evolution of how healthcare operates in the future," said AHA president Dick Davidson. "We want to be in a position to offer healthcare organizations the resources that allow them to succeed in today's digital environment. The first step is to build the secure network that will allow that to happen."

While the AHA move may have merit, some industry experts aren't quite so quick to abandon the Internet.

One concern is the long-term cost of deployment, which is unclear at this point. According to Jim Bloedau, president of Information Advantage Group, a San Francisco e-healthcare consulting firm, successful data transmission models require no greater effort than an online sign-up.

"If Darwin requires firewall configuration at every site, it's got problems," he said. "Secure Internet services can bypass this expensive problem."

One Internet HIPAA-readiness solution was announced in August. Hilgraeve, a Michigan data communications software firm, calls its HyperSend product the first free, secure Internet delivery service that poses no file-size restrictions - a feature that may interest radiologists.

The new AHA scheme, Bloedau said, sounds like a private extranet - an old solution that's found a new problem.

"The nice part of having a strong private backbone, such as this, is the performance and bandwidth for real-time viewing of streamed media. It's the bandwidth and security that matter here," he said. "However, streaming technology for the Internet is advancing rapidly and I see no reason not to be looking toward these advancements rather than incurring the cost of an extra/intranet," he said.

Digital data that are not necessarily time-critical can travel the Internet securely for substantially less money.