Jun 11 2024

Edge Computing Helps Federal Clinicians Serve Remote Regions

Agencies are overcoming “disadvantaged networks” with distributed architectures.

Edge computing ensures that federal clinicians operating out of rural areas, war zones, submarines or even the International Space Station (ISS)  can access the data they need to make lifesaving decisions in real time.

Technologists refer to IT environments in such remote places as “disadvantaged networks” because data transfer is difficult. Still, it’s not impossible if an agency moves to a distributed architecture allowing for analytics at the periphery — as close to the source as possible.

That in a nutshell is edge computing. And agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are embracing the capability to put cutting-edge diagnostics in the hands of medical professionals working outside of modern hospitals and other controlled settings through abundant connectivity and computing resources.

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Remote Clinics May Lack Necessary High-Speed Connectivity

Modern healthcare is supported by robust and ongoing technology innovation. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and other advanced capabilities are revolutionizing everything from diagnostics and surgical suites to clinical workflows and staffing models for busy emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Unfortunately, providing these technologies to remote locations over disadvantaged networks can be a problem. Clinical health IT resources typically involve cloud computing, high-bandwidth connectivity and device support with low-latency mobile networks such as 5G. All of these resources can be challenging to deliver in a demanding clinical setting such as a mobile hospital, a remote rural clinic or a medical bay aboard the space station.

Compared with a city hospital or suburban clinic, for instance, it’s harder to provide real-time diagnostic or specialist support to an Army doctor conducting triage for soldiers on the front line if connectivity is unreliable or nonexistent. And it’s impossible to run an Ethernet cable from Earth to an orbiting space station. The paradox is that these limitations are happening in medical scenarios where the stakes couldn’t be higher: saving the lives of critically injured soldiers or keeping astronauts healthy when the nearest hospital or clinic is back on Earth, 250 miles below.

DISCOVER: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is using zero trust to secure the IoMTs.

Edge Computing Improves Patient Outcomes in Remote Settings

Health IT leaders charged with serving disadvantaged networks are discovering new ways to position more computing power and advanced clinical decision support at the source through edge computing. Instead of sending data to the cloud, data is analyzed onsite, where it is generated. By keeping and managing more data at the edge, these deployments reduce the cost, latency and data privacy risk of sending information across what may be multiple third-party networks for connectivity and cloud computing.

Onsite data processing typically takes place on compact edge hardware, often equipped with graphics processing units that are optimized for AI and ML modeling for advanced diagnostics and decision support. AI at the edge can also help physicians in the field quickly access the right clinical practice guidelines through retrieval-augmented generation and other contextualized search functions.

All of these capabilities can be hardened with operational redundancies and other configuration choices that improve reliability and performance in disadvantaged network scenarios. As a result, edge computing can improve patient outcomes by cutting down the time it takes providers to diagnose and begin treating conditions, even in the most remote and rugged healthcare delivery settings.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Health agencies find virtual visits are more convenient.

Unique Edge Solutions Fuel Broader Health Innovation

Advanced health IT is even making its way into space aboard the ISS, thanks to edge technologies. With data processed close to where it is generated in the space station medical bay and labs rather than being sent back to Earth, compact edge devices onsite can run analysis and provide decision support on the spot, typically within seconds or minutes. This is particularly useful for analyzing microbes in air, water and surface samples to protect astronauts from space-based fungi or bacteria.

Fortunately, the edge solutions created for demanding use cases such as this are also fueling broader innovations in everyday healthcare delivery. For instance, the same AI-edge deployment designed to tee up specialized clinical practice guidelines for a military doctor in the field can also be used to enhance the knowledge base of a nurse practitioner handling caseloads in an understaffed suburban clinic. And considering the amount of data moving from edge devices to the cloud and back, edge deployment can also reduce costs.

Related examples include edge technology in support of connected ambulances, sensor-optimized supply chain or manufacturing operations for pharmaceutical companies, and inventory management at neighborhood pharmacies. These are just some of the ways edge solutions designed for the most drastic clinical conditions can benefit the entire healthcare industry.

Relatively few clinicians will ever find themselves caring for soldiers in a war zone or screening for microbial contamination on an orbiting space station. But for those who do, edge technology is delivering real-time data and clinical care support across disadvantaged networks to help save lives and improve health outcomes. Better still, the edge solutions developed for these extreme use cases are driving clinical care advances across the broader healthcare community.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Woitzel/U.S. Navy

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