By Duncan MacRae
The state-of-the-art King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh represents the future of healthcare in Saudi Arabia. Duncan MacRae finds out how the hospital is embracing the latest technology to provide first class treatment for the whole nation.
There are not many companies in the Middle East whose electronic records top 600,000 a year. There are even fewer whose records include multimedia files. But when it comes to virtually realising a paperless and film-less environment, King Fahd Medical City (KFMC) probably tops the charts, but that is only a part of the hospital's route to creating an electronic nervous system.
Saudi Arabia's healthcare system is fragmented with the quality of care varying considerably between regions. The King Fahd Medical City aims to change that and has turned to its computing infrastructure to help it realise its goals.
The centre, which took ten years to build, acts as a model for healthcare in the rest of the country and provides complete healthcare services to the local community.
The four-hospital, 1,095-bed medical facility, which opened officially in October 2004, is the largest in the Middle East and was built at a cost of over US$600 million.
It is also now the leading tertiary care referral centre in the region for the treatment of rare and complex medical cases that other facilities are unable to deal with.
KFMC is harnessing the latest communications technologies from Cisco, as well as IBM server technologies to help it introduce modern healthcare IT techniques and is said to have already made great leaps towards its ambitious goals.
These achievements include the provision of rapid electronic access to patient records and medical images by mobile and remote healthcare workers as well as those onsite. The IT infrastructure also supports video streaming of surgical procedures to medical students near and far.
The network had to support as many as 60,000 application transactions per day rapidly, reliably and securely, and be scalable and flexible enough to cope with future requirements.
KFMC's CIO, Khalid M Al-Salama, and his technical team knew what had to be achieved in terms of technology. But they sought expert advice on the exact solutions that could be deployed to achieve the Medical City's vision.
Al-Salama explains: "We worked together with IBM and Cisco from the beginning, designing the optimum network. Cisco provided us with very good support engineers and network designers, and gave us excellent value for money.
"The Cisco brand is more solid than other brands, and the company is easier to deal with here in the region than other suppliers. Training on Cisco equipment is available locally, so a lot of people are certified on the technologies here," he says.
The most critical aspect of the Cisco technology was the bandwidth and the availability it offered. "We have taken Cisco's biggest core switches which give us the highest bandwidth and we designed the network to be as reliable and available as possible, with redundancy at the access and core network layers. This infrastructure is really important in delivering the goals of KFMC and will be central to our leadership role," he explains.
The network, which KFMC continues to enhance, is the Medical City's digital nervous system, connecting the four hospitals, specialist outpatient clinics and nursing school on the extensive campus. It will also connect mobile and remote professionals who need access to patient files and other critical medical resources to aid them when not at a fixed computer terminal.
Authentication at a network access and application level ensures that only authorised personnel can gain access to the network remotely so that there are no security threats. The freedom to view and amend information while on the move will ensure that nurses and doctors are always working with the most accurate and up-to-date patient information. This will also safeguard the quality of patient care at KFMC, while saving staff valuable time during their shifts.
All patient records are managed electronically over the network, including medical images such as x-rays. Core applications include a PACS (picture archiving and communication system) digital imaging solution from GE, which allows x-rays and other medical images to be archived and accessed electronically.
Administration will also be managed across the network using a hospital information system (HIS). "Running our HIS over the network will save us a lot of time, while reducing costs and potential for error," Al-Salama says.
The Medical City now treats more than 50,000 inpatients and more than 600,000 outpatients annually. It also intends to deliver e-learning by streaming video coverage of surgical procedures to medical students on the campus and beyond, to improve the quality of training, reduce costs, and increase the number of students who can participate simultaneously.
Although it is still early days for KFMC, this world-class medical institution is already well on its way to achieving the goals it has set itself - not just to improve the healthcare of local and national citizens, but to place Saudi on the global healthcare map.
Within the campus, the Medical City has been able to roll out patient services at record speed - it is already operating at 75% of its maximum capacity in some areas - while the next phases of the network are already being commissioned. For reasons of budgetary and project management, KFMC has saved the wireless, IP telephony and video capabilities for a second wave of development.
"We are currently still in the first phase of building the infrastructure," says Dr Abdullah Al-Amro, CEO at KFMC. "What excites me is what we'll be able to do with the wireless coverage that we have for the campus, and the services we will be able to run on this network, such as RFID and asset tracking, and having wireless access to our patient records and hospital information system."
The centre is already thinking ahead to the services it will be able to provide to medical institutions in every corner of this vast country.
The KFMC infrastructure has been designed to allow for future generations of ICT, including all aspects of multimedia convergence. This will be critical as the Medical City strives to make unified medical records - storing medical images alongside other patient notes - available to medical institutions around Saudi Arabia so that patients can be treated effectively throughout the Kingdom.