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Health care is hot, but challenging

If you think dealing with a testy IT manager is tough, try negotiating with medical professionals, who have their own stark definition of what is a 'mission critical' requirement.

Doctors are a quirky bunch. For instance, we once knew a general practitioner who lovingly carried an aged stethoscope from his early medical school days, even though more recent devices may have been a lot better and easier to use. Many physicians also take pride in the fact that no one outside the medical field can read their handwriting, which is probably some standards-based security practice adopted long ago by workers in the health field.

It is no surprise then that health care remains one of the top vertical segments for mobile and wireless deployments, and is often the one that demonstrates a clearer and more immediate return on investment (ROI) when it comes to using wireless tools and solutions. Overall spending on IT products and services in the life sciences market -- a wide area that encompasses health care, pharmaceuticals, and drug research -- is expected to increase from $12 billion in 2001 to $30 billion in 2006, with an annual growth of about 17 percent, according to market researcher IDC. Much of this spending will be driven by research and development within the pharmaceuticals area, as well as by efforts to apply mobile technology solutions to pharmaceuticals sales and CRM efforts.

The catch-22, however, is that while the health care industry offers the most potential for vendors and systems integrators looking to score a solutions sale it is usually a more difficult conquest as compared with traditional enterprise operations. There are a myriad of reasons for this situation, but the top three are:

Health care professionals, especially doctors, view mobile and wireless solutions providers more as medical partners than IT people. That is, you not only have to understand the hospital's basic business model, but you also must focus on the patient-doctor dynamics and relationships. If you think dealing with a testy IT manager is tough, try negotiating with medical professionals, who consistently have more commitments than hours in a day and have their own very stark definition of what is a 'mission critical' requirement.

Although they are surrounded by a variety of technology, doctors have very little patience for non-medical systems that require a significant learning curve and may create a roadblock when dealing with patients and other doctors. Many doctors are reluctant, or have little time for elaborate record keeping (which is why nurses and other medical support personnel are invaluable assets to any hospital). This is why notes are scrawled in clipboard files and pen and paper are often preferred over handhelds and keyboards.

While health care professionals realize the benefits of having quick access to patient-related data anytime and anywhere, they are also very aware of the inherent security problems of wireless systems, the possible difficulties that might result if all related records are not 'in sync', and the demand of having to physically dock devices at a nurse's station to connect to central information resources and coordinate and share information. There is also the problem of linking standard wireless systems (802.11, Bluetooth, etc.) with sophisticated medical systems, which often include high-bandwidth imaging content.

The vendor-as-advisor relationship becomes even more critical in the pharmaceuticals industry, where sales personal may use mobile and wireless systems to provide the latest drug information to a doctor-client, and even provide knowledgeable answers when it comes to treating patients with current or new medicines. Not only are there increasing restrictions on how much time and money can be spent pursuing physician sales and developing strong contacts within the doctor community, but there are tighter controls on pharmaceutical sales tactics and how drug sales people interact with physicians. Other factors that impact this segment include:

  • An increasingly limited amount of time to initiate new contacts with physicians and hospital personnel, often less than 45 seconds for these discussions and introductions.
  • More competition, as well as a stronger push to add more doctor visits and drug sales calls into a typical day to achieve sales quotas.
  • An increased regard for sales personnel who are knowledgeable about the products they sell, and are well-informed on developments in both the public and private sectors which can have a significant impact on drug market and pharmaceutical sales efforts in general.
  • An obvious need for accuracy, reliability and security of the information that is accessed and transferred between physicians and pharmaceutical organizations -- especially in light of expanding government (FDA) regulations focusing on the health care segment.
Still, health care remains one of the top vertical areas for mobile and wireless deployments, in both the private and government sectors. Hospitals are also prime candidates for emerging wireless solutions such as radio frequency ID (RFID) tagging, since these systems in particular can be used to dramatically reduce loss of equipment and supplies, and track in real time the location of needed equipment and even personnel.

Often, the hospital applications with the strongest and most obvious ROI benefits are those that rely on basic synchronization tactics, accomplished via wired or wireless systems. At the Sacred Heart Health System hospitals network in Florida, for example, medical staffs rely on iAnywhere solutions to get immediate wireless access to patient information, lab work, X-rays and other test results. The solution was designed and installed by Cogon Systems, a medical systems integrator, and makes use of SQL Anywhere to provide seamless access to critical information that is stored in multiple hospital information systems.

Key aspects of the system include a Moment of Care Information Systems (MCIS) powered by Ultralite, a deployment option of SQL Anywhere Studio, running on Palm- and Pocket PC-based PDAs as well as Windows-based desktop and tablet PCs; and a consolidated database running on Windows 2000-based server. Data synchronization between the remote PDAs and the consolidated server system occurs via an 802.11b wireless network as well a variety of infrared devices and cradles.

The ROI benefits of this particular application are dramatic, and affect a variety of different departments. For example, before the wireless system was installed it took up to 40 minutes to gather all the information needed on a single patient. Multiply that by the daily patient load of a typical doctor and nurse and you can easily see the savings in time and money. And this isn't even a 'real-time' application, since patient data is updated every 15 minutes or so.

Obviously, wireless applications examples such as this have the potential to convince even the most set-in-stone health professional that fast and reliable access to critical information is every bit as important as medical experience and the ability to make sense out of a complicated x-ray or scribbled notation. The next step is to expand these network tools beyond a hospital's walls and further down the patient-doctor supply chain, to the point where less-critical individuals can utilize mobile devices to maintain the telemetric connection with the hospital staff and reduce the time spent sitting in a hospital.

Some doctors may still be reluctant to retire that favorite stethoscope, but new tools and techniques will thankfully make it more of a conversation piece in the networked hospital environment.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

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