Texas Health Association Employs Telecommunications to Lessen Health Risks
November 6, 2003
Even before the events of September 11, 2001, The Texas Association of Local Health Officials, or TALHO, sought to install a telecommunications network that would allow the state to better prepare for and respond to bio-terrorism and natural disease outbreaks. It chose Cisco Gold partner Avnet Enterprise Solutions for project management, engineering, installation, and training of this critical sys-tem. Today, 70 Texas local health departments and 82 Texas Department of Health regional sub-offices are on the network, and its scalability will accommodate other health care and local law enforcement entities that want to participate.
Agency Applies New Technology to Lessen Health Risks
Officials at TALHO believed strongly that employing telecommunications technology could substantially lessen health risks, both natural diseases and threats from bio-terrorism.
"Natural diseases can be every bit as threatening as bio-terrorism," said Lee Lane, Executive Director for TALHO. "In 1918, there was a naturally occurring flu outbreak that killed 20 to 40 million people worldwide. Infection rate goes up exponentially, so the earlier you find the infection and take counter measures, the lower the number of people affected will be." More recent outbreak occurrences include the West Nile Virus and SARS. The TALHO organization wanted to put in place a telecommunications network that would make it easier and faster to detect and monitor an outbreak, no matter its source.
The network Lane and his staff envisioned would work like this: an outbreak happens in a particular location in the state, alerts could be delivered instantly to public health entities throughout the state via e-mail, fax, pager, wireless access PDAs or Web browser alerts. Treatment information and options could be delivered the same way. Participants could also track geographic areas affected via the Web. The speed of communication would be essential to the success of the project. "We are also utilizing Satellite downlinks and video conferencing capabilities throughout the state," said Lane.
"With fast and far-reaching communication, we can start giving people vaccines if the out-break is viral, or antibiotics if it's bacterial," said Lane. "We can begin control measures to slow down the epidemic. For example, most people want to evacuate in a natural disaster. With a contagious agent, you don't necessarily want to do that because the outbreak could spread even faster."
Team Secures Funding; Avnet Enterprise Solutions Wins Bid for End-to-End Solution
The project actually started back in 1999 when TALHO received initial funding from the Center for Disease Control. Then three members of the TALHO group approached the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Board for additional funding.
"At the time, the people in the state didn't view bio-terrorism as a threat, so our work was not so much technical as it was political," notes Lane. "But eventually we received our funding."
With the money in place, TALHO needed to identify a technical partner to engineer and deploy the network within a tight timeline. Avnet Enterprise Solutions, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, is a solutions integrator specializing in enterprise network, server and storage solutions. The company leverages its unique suite of tech-nical and financial professional services to minimize implementation risk, maximize IT flexibility and optimize a customer's IT investment.
Avnet Enterprise Solutions is also a Cisco Gold Partner and holds Cisco specializations in IP telephony, VPN/ Security and Wireless LAN.
"Our Gold Partner standing is critical to our customers," said Christine Ricker, account manager for Avnet Enterprise Solutions. "It means that they can rely on us to deliver the latest technology from Cisco with confi-dence." Avnet works closely with Cisco to stay on the cutting edge of technology, and its engineering team is constantly expanding its knowledge base on Cisco products. In addition to its Cisco specializations, Avnet also passed the rigorous audit required for acceptance into the Cisco Professional Service Partner program.
The TALHO team put the project out to bid and in the end, staff members gave the nod to Avnet Enterprise Solutions.
"What set us apart was that we could provide an end-to-end solution, which was exactly what the project required," said Ricker.
The Avnet Management Team established project structure and staffing plans for the TALHO project to ensure successful deployment, along with managing additional constraints of time and budget. Avnet also arranged Help Desk network monitoring services and an onsite engineer to assist with the maintenance of the massive network.
Along with building the core network infrastructure, Avnet Enterprise Solutions needed to initially connect 64 public health entities throughout the state of Texas to the network. That alone was a substantial job.
"In the 1990s, public health departments had very archaic communicationsQ many didn't even have computers, much less e-mail," said Lane. "That translated into 64 different entities with 64 different legacy issues. I was very pleased with the skills that the Avnet Management Team brought to the project. They established a good rapport with each of the entities and was able to address the specific problems and needs of each one while still building a consistent network."
It was a lot to keep track of. Each of the 64 sites had some combination of the following: cabling, router, server, desktops, laptops, printer, scanner, switch, uninterruptible power supply unit, Polycom video conferencing unit, cache engine, a modem for fail-over connectivity and out-of-band management, a T1 for WAN connectivity and Avnet's Help Desk with network monitoring. And to make things even more tricky, all sites needed to be deployed by a certain date or TALHO would lose its grant money. Avnet completed the deployment with two weeks to spare.
"We're pleased with Avnet's ability to complete the project and meet our sometimes inflexible plans," said Lane. "We have a high level of trust in staff members' capabilities as well as the effort they've put into completing the project. We have a very good relationship with them."
Network Becomes 'Business As Usual'
With the network now up and running, TALHO is looking forward to using it on a daily basis.
"It was important that the network not be used only as an emergency response system," noted Lane. "Otherwise, people will be unfamiliar with the technology. We really wanted it used as part of the normal course of business."
A primary goal for the Texas Health Alert Network is connection to other health departments, hospitals, schools, and local law enforcement entities throughout the state, with the end goal of having 90 percent of the population covered.
"The use of IP and other technologies will allow each participant of the Texas Health Alert Network to commu-nicate via e-mail and telephone without incurring long distance cost," said Ricker. "This will be a big benefit to each participant. Not only will this solution save a tremendous amount of money, but more importantly it will allow for more communication among all sites to share knowledge and expertise that could save lives now and in an emergency."
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