Friday, January 26, 2007

Intranet: information technology for a limited universe

Scarcely a day goes by without significant media coverage of the information technology industry's newest communications creation - the Intranet. Small consulting firms and corporate titans alike are working to expand Intranet applications.

The word "Intranet" had little meaning and no media exposure as recently as a year ago. Even now, defining the term "Intranet" is a challenge because of the power and versatility of Internet-based software and connectivity.

In late 1995, the term "Intranet" was applied to closed or proprietary computer networks - either local area networks (LANs), or wide area networks (WANs) - running Internet-based software (TCP/IP and http for you techies). As Intranet technology began to allow remote access either through dial-up modems or through the Internet itself, the distinction between an Intranet system and a password- or security-protected Internet site began to blur.

The current working definition of Intranet is a limited-access network of/inked computers that uses a common Internet-based protocol to exchange data and information. The differentiating feature between an Intranet and the Internet is the limited access feature of the Intranet. Access limits can be created using any of a variety of firewall systems, password protection, browser-based security features, and other types of security technology. An Intranet could even be created by simply limiting the distribution of, and linking to, a given universal resource locator (URL) thereby producing an information-based security system. This level of security is tentative at best, however, since the effective password and the Internet address would be one in the same.

Intranet's Strengths

So what's the big deal regarding the Intranet? Moreover, how did it move from obscurity to the cover of Business Week in less' than one year?(a) The answer lies in three relatively simple concepts - standardization, capacity, and efficiency.

Standardization. A relatively open environment for software development has helped hundreds of companies and thousands of programmers create Internet-based languages, tools, and applications at an astonishing rate. The explosive growth of the Internet has been aided by adoption of standardized languages and protocols whose acceptance is increasing in part because they are platform-independent (ie, both IBM-compatible PCs and Macintosh computers can interpret and display information conveyed in standard languages).

Capacity. Internet-based protocols allow the transfer of images, sound, and even video online - a tremendous step beyond simple text-based transfer of information. The ability to transfer graphic content online can be compared to the advance in the evolution of personal computers when operating systems replaced text-based DOS languages with Macintosh and Windows systems that feature graphic user interfaces. This improvement was fueled by the knowledge that human beings comprehend and prefer images over simple text.

Efficiency. With the Intranet, an organization need only look in one place for key and/or frequently used data and information. Images, text, tables, directories, and other content is available in updated format at all times. Documents and projects under evaluation or development can be accessed and worked on by many individuals from remote locations.

Implications for Health Care

So what does all this mean to the healthcare industry? Should every healthcare delivery system have an Intranet? Despite the tremendous opportunities offered by such networks, Intranets are not for everyone, at least not yet. Exhibit 1 lists some of the advantages and disadvantages of Intranet development.

Of particular interest to healthcare financial managers are the matters of cost and return on investment. The costs of setting up an Intranet can be broken down into developmental cost, which typically runs from $25,000 to $100,000, and ongoing maintenance cost, which usually is about $25,000 per year. But costs are affected by the existing state of the information infrastructure within the institution.

If, for example, a healthcare system considering an Intranet already has a LAN or WAN in place, development cost will be significantly less because hard wiring can be kept to a minimum. On the other hand, if an organization has employees who need access to the Intranet network, but who are not currently linked to an existing network, hard wiring costs may be significantly higher.

To date, a number of organizations have elected to invest in Intranets. Information commonly provided on healthcare Intranets includes:

* Policy and procedure manuals;

* Directories - telephone, address, and e-mail;

* Human resource benefits information and forms;

* Answers to frequently asked questions;

* Schedules - daily, vacation, on call;

* Positions available;

* Forms; and

* Patient instructions.

The decision to implement, postpone, or forgo an Intranet involves complex issues and is, to some extent, enterprise-specific. Healthcare financial managers should carefully monitor developments in this rapidly expanding area and be willing to exploit the benefits an Intranet can offer to healthcare organizations.