Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust banks on F5 for secure remote access during COVID-19

Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust realized that the impact of COVID-19 on its operations would require significantly more staff to work from home. F5 and its partner, FullProxy, rapidly combined forces to ensure that even a ten-fold increase in remote users had no impact on the user experience.

Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is one of the key healthcare providers in the northwest of England, with services covering Lancashire and South Cumbria.

It provides healthcare services to more than 1.5 million people, as well as medical education for students at the University of Manchester and St. Andrews University.

The Trust, which also runs a trauma center with leading pathology services, is a critical part of the National Health Service, and it was designated as one of a dozen key regional hubs for COVID-19 testing across the UK.

When the potential scale of the pandemic became clear, the Trust realized that it needed to enable remote working for a much larger number of clinical and administration staff: its existing remote access solution could only accommodate 500 concurrent users.

With the hospital providing an essential service during the crisis, the pressure was on to maintain all its services. This was particularly important for urgent and emergency services related to the pandemic’s impact.  

“Some of our people still needed to be on site. However, in order to minimize the risk of infection, clinical and administrative staff were asked to work from home where feasible,”  said Saeed Umar, Head of Technical Services, Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The sudden shift meant that a soaring number of home workers required immediate, rapid, and secure application access to their online systems. 

Building on a solid foundation

To ensure operational continuity, the Trust reached out to F5 and FullProxy to establish the options ahead.

Fortunately, it had already been using F5 technology for almost eight years, hosting applications on-premise using F5 BIG-IP iSeries appliances in an active/passive configuration to balance the load on the system.

Last year, the Trust embarked on a process with F5 and FullProxy to investigate enhancements to its existing solutions. That led to the replacement of its existing remote access solution with F5 BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM) in order to secure, simplify and centralize access to apps, APIs and data – irrespective of where users and their apps are located.

Within hours of being asked to help with the anticipated impact of COVID-19, F5 and FullProxy moved to upgrade the existing system and raise the maximum number of concurrent remote users to 2,000.

 “F5 and FullProxy understood that timing was critical, and they made both the licenses and all the associated support services available immediately,” said Stephen Dobson, CIO, Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The flexibility and the strong relationship between all three organizations meant that the project, which included rapid configuration support from FullProxy’s engineer, was completed in record time.  

“Once we made the decision to upgrade the existing F5 solution, we had access to the expanded capabilities in hours, instead of days or even months,” Dobson explained.

With both clinical and administration staff securely accessing their applications, the Trust was able to execute on business continuity plans without any issues, including the constant delivery of world-class healthcare to its patients. This remained the case even as concurrent remote users surged from 70 per day to over 700+ during the pandemic’s peak.

The Trust’s seamless access to applications, and the expanded use of Microsoft Teams, also increased collaboration between team members, boosted staff morale and helped to improve work-life balance throughout an unprecedently challenging time. Staff feedback was unanimously positive and there were no negative impacts on any individuals’ ability to work.

“Even when our remote users increased by ten times there was no impact on the user experience. Our staff were so impressed they were even talking about it on social media,” enthused Jonathan Wood, Deputy CEO, Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The project’s success has also prompted the Trust to consider allowing more staff to work from home permanently, which could result in considerable cost savings associated with physical infrastructures and facilities management. It has also laid the groundwork for future COVID-19 outbreaks or other unexpected circumstances likely to intensify remote access requirements.