Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health is undergoing major IT surgery at the moment, to bring its hospitals and clinics into the digital age. NME talks to its CIO about the recent infrastructure projects.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health (MoH) is one of many public sector organisations in the country which are feeling the full force of the Kingdom’s IT revolution. The MoH’s 200 hospitals, 2,000 clinics, regional HQs and other institutions are in the process of receiving a major IT upgrade – the first for many of the facilities concerned.
Infrastructure is the major component of this drive – the organisation is in the process of upgrading 30 of its hospitals with new networks and IT systems, and is also preparing to link its sites across the Kingdom together. At the moment the MoH has connections between its Riyadh headquarters, its 20 regional HQs and 20 medical supply depots, as well as 40 colleges and 30 medical labs – around 250 links in total.
The core of the Ministry’s network consists of a number of 3Com 7700 routers – four in its main office. The MoH has stuck with 3Com systems for its infrastructure thanks to their stability and reliability, according to the Ministry’s CIO, Fahad Bin Saud Al-Otaibi.
“When I started as CIO three years ago, there was a stack of very old 3Com switches at the Ministry, installed seven years before,” says Al-Otaibi. “Instead of changing the whole technology it was better for the organisation to keep the same technology and upgrade it, as it was working perfectly for us.”
The latest round of upgrades will put in 3Com-based infrastructure to the 30 hospitals, in addition to the 15 sites already completed, and the core switches at each of the regional HQs. Coming from a low level of existing IT infrastructure – sometimes none at all – the MoH is installing complete networks at each site, based around power over Ethernet (PoE) Gigabit switches, which will give the organisation the ability to add in more sophisticated systems at a later date, such as IP telephony.
“We have a pilot project for IP telephony, just to see how reliable it is with our bandwidth,” says Al-Otaibi.
“We have set it up in our HQ, and we have distributed IP phones to around 15 remote users. They are using our WAN along with all our other applications, with different bandwidths – 2Mbit/s, 512kbit/s, 128kbit/s. It seems to us that it’s reliable – that’s why we’ve signed a new deal to convert a whole hospital to IP telephony, with 3Com equipment, which started a few months ago.”
Al-Otaibi and his team have opted for a pragmatic approach to the countrywide infrastructure to handle the Ministry’s 140,000 employees across the Kingdom. The MoH uses a virtual cloud system for its overall WAN, provided by Saudi Telecom Company (STC), but its individual connections from hospitals or other sites can vary widely.
“We don’t have to go for a single topology; we are a multi-device, multi-server, multi-connection organisation,” explains Al-Otaibi. So even with the network connection, we have different bandwidths – from 2Mbit/s, to 128kbit/s. We have recently even started using dial-up connections, for remote sites where there’s no other connectivity – these are very few, though.”
These varying connection levels give an indication of how disparate the Ministry’s sites are, both in terms of location and IT development. The MoH is trying to bring all its sites up to the same level, and ensures it keeps the number of different systems running across its network to a minimum – although it sometimes has to build out the infrastructure of one site individually, then bring it in to the overall MoH network.
“We are running about 16 systems across the Kingdom, including personnel, finance, medical supply system, budgeting – most of the common systems,” says Al-Otaibi. “Mainly we go for the centralised management topology, but sometimes we need to use the standalone management – there is no connection between the site and the main network.
“In that situation, you need to set up the site’s own infrastructure, and move it gradually to the centralised management system. For example, we have only one personnel system, so it can be run across the Kingdom,” he adds.
Looking to the future, Al-Otaibi is clearly excited about the scale of the projects ahead of the Ministry, saying the work has just started, and what has come so far is “nothing compared to the rest of our required projects”. In parallel with the main infrastructure projects, the MoH is planning a number of more advanced schemes, mainly running as pilots.
“We have a project for telemedicine, which will connect three regions together – the central region, the western region and the Medina region,” comments Al-Otaibi on one such scheme. “We will set up three main sites, connected through five small hospitals, for the telemedication, teleradiology – those are connected to the main office of the MoH.”
The telemedicine project, which is running as a three-year pilot, aims to give hospitals access to specialists in a bid to tackle the inevitable shortages of highly-trained staff for the large number of MoH sites. The Ministry is also looking at bringing technologies such as wireless networking into its facilities, but its CIO says at this stage there is little real need in many sites.
“Wireless – it is in the plan; but most of our hospitals do not have the IT infrastructure, or are not computerised enough until now, so we have not implemented it generally,” Al-Otaibi says.
At a more down-to-earth level, the organisation will be deploying a new primary health system throughout its offices and sites – Al-Otaibi says the MoH has signed a project recently to deploy it in 150 clinics as a first phase.
Saudi Arabia’s health Ministry has a long way to go before it completes its infrastructure project – with 45 hospitals upgraded at the end of its current round, it is less than one quarter of the way to completion.
But it has the advantage of some of the best medical facilities in the world to use as best practice models, as Al-Otaibi points out.
“The King Faisal Specialist Hospital, and the National Guard hospital; these are fully computerised. In the King Faisal hospital, they are using tablet PCs and wireless technology,” he says.