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Virtual, mobile healthcare apps aim to bring consistency

With patients' medical histories and care on the line, going virtual and mobile often comes down to more than just cost.

SAN FRANCISCO – Plenty of enterprises look for cost savings when deciding to implement new technologies, but that isn't always the biggest factor when moving to virtual and mobile applications.

Consistency, reliability and the need for anytime-anywhere access to critical applications top the list of business drivers behind VDI and mobility in healthcare organizations. Attendees here at VMworld this week heard from several hospitals that have implemented VDI and BYOD programs, built on VMware Horizon, AirWatch and other mobile device management software.

Beaufort Memorial Hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina first moved to VMware VDI to remove the hardware barriers that prevented hospital staff from doing their jobs wherever they were and from any device, said Ed Ricks, CIO and vice president of information services at the hospital.

IT implemented virtual desktops at kiosks, in patient rooms and in other areas where staff needed to access patient care and other applications away from their desk.

"The key is it should all look and feel the same wherever [hospital employees] are," Ricks said.

But the organization didn't worry too much about cost savings when it moved to VDI; the main business driver was more focused on people and their processes, Ricks said.

"It was: 'How can we improve that care delivery process and make sure those users have whatever they need wherever they go?'" he said.

VDI's consistency appeals  

For another hospital, VDI provides a consistency and simpler management system that their physical desktop setup had sorely lacked.

"The desktop environment we had previously was really kind of a mess," said James Brummett, the director of technical services at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif. "It's an absolute nightmare to try and manage all these individual machines."

By deploying non-persistent virtual desktops to physicians and nurses on any device, El Camino centralized desktop management and improved security. After each day, IT wipes all virtual desktops and spins up a clean image when the user logs back in the next day, so each desktop is newly patched and free of any malware. Delivering new desktop images daily has been a huge help because it prevents users from downloading unwanted content or tweaking applications, Brummett said.

Another big plus is that, for a non-profit like Brummett's, offering top-notch technology can help bring in business and compete with other similar facilities. That was another major driver for VDI and mobility in the hospital, as consulting physicians are more likely to choose to work at El Camino if they know they'll have a great user experience across all their devices, Brummett said.

"VDI has provided a way for us to entice those users and give them everything they need," he said.

To provide application access on mobile devices inside and outside the organization, both hospitals also support BYOD and a smattering of corporate-owned devices.

Mobile apps have room to grow

One of the biggest needs for doctors and other hospital staff is access to their electronic medical records (EMR) software. Beaufort Memorial delivers its EMR app to company-provided Surface Pro tablets and users' Apple iPads, and manages those devices via AirWatch. The hospital plans to update its EMR system when the provider comes out with support for HTML5.

"It's really built to be mobile," Ricks said.

But that's not always the case with healthcare software providers, Brummett said. Many are just starting to mobilize their applications.

"The software providers are so behind compared to so many different industries," he said. "But it's a big challenge – it's hard to take a MEDITECH or an Epic [EMR] platform and take it down to the size of a [mobile] device."

Those systems were built for PCs, and it's not easy to pare them down into boxes and dropdown menus. They often need to tell a narrative with a lot of information about the patient, so it's hard to bring these systems to mobile devices, Brummett said.

Native patient care apps are starting to catch on but they have limited functionality, he said. While they might meet a niche need for certain information, they don't yet supply the full patient records that doctors need.

Still, one common requirement for physicians is viewing images such as X-rays from digital imaging software. El Camino was able to bring that to mobile devices using a third-party app that allows doctors away from the hospital to receive patient images from nurses and even respond via notes or a voice message. This process was previously done the stone-age way, with nurses taking pictures of the software up on a computer screen in the hospital, then sending the image via text to a doctor off-site, Brummett said.

For both hospitals, going virtual and mobile provided a consistent user experience across desktops and applications on a variety of devices.  

Alyssa Wood is a managing editor with TechTarget's end user computing media group. Contact her at awood@techtarget.com.

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