The Health Information Exchange of Montana (HIEM) partnered with Cyan to design and deploy a private fiber network connecting 21 medical facilities throughout rural northern Montana. The results? HIEM’s network delivers dramatically faster sharing of electronic medical records (EMRs) between physicians and other medical staff across the region, superior patient care and a more sustainable business model.

Northwestern and north central Montana is one of the most beautiful regions in the country, as well as one of the most rural. Delivering healthcare services to the approximately 140,000 residents spread across an area of 45,000 square miles can present considerable challenges, especially when it comes to sharing patient information between multiple geographically isolated medical facilities in a way that’s quick, secure and cost efficient.

HIEM is a consortium of five hospitals and two federally funded community health centers formed in 2006 to tackle this challenge. With a $13.6 million award from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Health Care Pilot Program and a $2.4 million cash match provided by partners, HIEM began exploring alternatives for deploying their own private network to improve communication between 21 rural medical facilities throughout the region. Besides delivering better performance than the legacy network consisting of leased T1 lines, the new private network also needed to be financially sustainable.

Controlling their network and future

Instead of leasing fiber lines from service providers and installing routers at each site, which would’ve involved significant upfront capital expenditures and considerable ongoing costs, HIEM elected to build its own dedicated fiber network. HIEM selected multiple partners to make this new high-performance network a reality, including the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), which was instrumental in helping with the first section of the fiber network; and Cyan, which was chosen to provide networking hardware and software as well as network design and support expertise.


The network improves image resolution in X-rays and CT scans delivered from HIEM member Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Cyan’s Blue Planet software-defined networking (SDN) system initially demonstrated how HIEM could deploy a low-cost, self-owned network to interconnect the rural facilities by using Cyan’s packet-optical transport platforms (P-OTPs). Cyan’s Blue Planet network operation software and outsourced network operations center (NOC) services also ensured that HIEM could focus on its core mission, once the network was fully operational.

Beyond reducing their costs, the strategy of building their own private network also allowed HIEM to create a more sustainable business model by leasing excess network capacity to local telecommunication providers and other partners in the region to generate revenues.

“Cyan was a true partner throughout the network design and implementation process,” says Kip Smith, HIEM executive director. “They helped us meet unforeseen challenges and create economically viable solutions quickly and easily using Blue Planet planning and operation apps.”

The deployment of the HIEM private fiber network was not without its unique challenges. Working with its partner, BNSF, to lay fiber along its train route, which traversed the rugged and mountainous Continental Divide, was no small task. But HIEM successfully dedicated the 425-mile private fiber network in August of 2012.

Improving productivity, saving lives

The HIEM private fiber network has been shown to dramatically reduce the time required to perform virtually any healthcare function dealing with remote access to information, thereby improving productivity and – in many
cases – saving lives.


HIEM and BNSF deploying the fiber network.

Cyan’s solutions enabled HIEM to increase the transmission rate of EMR systems, saving a local clinic with five physicians upwards of 2,000 hours each year. Additionally, the network improves image resolution in X-rays and CT scans that are delivered from HIEM member Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s remote mammography coach, so that healthcare professionals are able to more rapidly diagnose and prescribe treatment to rural patients.

According to Smith, “Cyan helped HIEM improve healthcare services and the quality of life in some of the most rural areas of Montana, especially regarding trauma care. Activity that used to take an hour or two – sending X-rays, diagnosing injuries, consulting with experts and initiating patient transportation – can now be done in seconds or minutes.”

Going forward, HIEM plans to expand connectivity for professional healthcare education through the University of Montana, Salish Kootenai College, Flathead Valley Community College and Blackfeet Community College, as well as adding additional healthcare sites. HIEM also plans to build true redundancy into their network to ensure that they are never at risk of losing the vital connection the system provides to ensure superior patient care and,
ultimately, save lives. HMT

About the Author

Eric Clelland is co-founder and CMO, Cyan. For more on Cyan:

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