In healthcare IT, the ability to enhance 'point of patient care' capabilities often decides success or failure of a mobile system.
The one thing that has become incredibly clear after years of talking to the IT managers of a variety of companies, ranging from small independents and regional departments to large multinationals, is that no one has ever really bought a wireless solution 'off the rack.'
Sure, many companies have purchased standardized wireless equipment, mostly stuff from Cisco Systems Inc., since enterprise types feel more comfortable selecting from an approved buying list. They have even installed gateways that are self-configuring, self-reliant and technically selfless but usually need some degree of programming and tooling round to make it fit just right into a particular business model and operation. This is especially true when dealing with older companies, or firms that have gone through a number of mergers and consolidations that typically have IT networks riddled with all sorts of legacy baggage.
The need for some level of wireless system customization has also become very apparent as we criss-cross the country this week, talking with healthcare professionals as part of an informational and educational tour sponsored by wireless solution provider Bluesocket, Inc. and IBM Corp. (Both companies recently agreed to work together to provide secure wireless systems to hospitals and other healthcare organizations. If you are a healthcare professional located in the Orlando or Philadelphia area, and interested in attending, then pop on over to the registration Web site at www.bluesocket.com/intotheblue and sign up for a seat.) No two healthcare organizations are exactly alike, although the basic needs and requirements of these organizations are pretty much the same.
In order to make any technology - wired or wireless - work within a healthcare environment, it has to result in an obvious reduction in time and effort, and should increase the amount of time a doctor or nurse can spend with a patient. If it does not, then the technology just will not work, or may even create more problems than it looks to eliminate.
We learned as part of a pre-qualification survey, for example, that most of the healthcare organizations are very concerned with security, compatibility and technology standards when evaluating and selecting a wireless solution. The costs associate with implementing a secure system did not seem to be a terrific concern among the healthcare professionals polled, and compliance with current HIPAA rules achieved a medium score – most likely because hospitals already comply with government regulations regarding patient records and confidentiality. (Although we expect interest in the security of wireless systems and HIPAA will rise as the rules are adapted next month and hold IT departments more accountable if the proper 'due diligence' was not accomplished in evaluating, selecting and deploying electronic record-keeping systems).
End user adoption and acceptance was another area highlighted as a key concern among healthcare IT professionals. In fact, many of the people we talked to at one of these informational sessions held in California said they actively involved end users – doctors, nurses and other 'point of care' people – in the evaluation and selection process. One systems integrator actually staged events within the hospital that allowed the staff to come and play around with prospective client devices, such as wireless notebooks, tablet PCs and handheld computers.
In many cases, the doctors and nurses brought along their own suggestions for devices and thoughts on how they might be used. One strong notion that came from these meetings is that any client device used should not interfere with patient care, and in fact should afford doctors and nurses more time with their patients and colleagues.
Technology shy due to ROI
Many of the hospitals and healthcare providers surveyed as part of the Bluesocket-IBM informational tour admitted they were only in the early discovery phases of wireless enablement and, at best, had performed some early testing of wireless systems and devices. This was interesting, given the highly technical nature of the healthcare industry and affinity most doctors had for the latest electronic gadgets and time-saving devices.
The apparent reluctance to adopt, or at least warmly accept wireless technology in hospitals might, then, come from the business side of the organization since it is often difficult to measures the exact return on investment (ROI) of these systems (outside of the initial cost savings of wired versus wireless implementations). This is understandable, although the organizations can easily gauge the effectiveness of such systems by asking nurses how much time they might save running around for necessary records and files, or how many errors might be avoided by entering patient information directly at bedside using a wireless device.
The most obvious benefit wireless systems have in a healthcare application is their potential to reduce the number of errors that typically and inevitably occur in each and every hospital throughout the country. The number of errors related to mistakes made in prescribing and dispensing drugs, or from adverse drug interactions for example, numbers in the tens of thousands each year, according to industry reports. Many hospitals – most recently a few in the Boston area – have adopted UPC symbol-type systems whereby patients and medications are tagged and healthcare providers use handheld readers to match the correct drug with the correct druggee. Problem is that in order to save time – which is the enemy of all healthcare workers – nurses often scan UPC bracelets and tags en masse rather than run around to collect info individual rooms and patients.
In order to make any technology - wired or wireless – work within a healthcare environment, it has to result in an obvious reduction in time and effort, and should increase the amount of time a doctor or nurse can spend with a patient. If it does not, then the technology just will not work, or may even create more problems than it looks to eliminate. Ideal solutions will most likely involve the use of multiple communications infrastructures, a variety of devices, and reliable applications that can easily and securely drill back to critical information resources.
These solutions should also include a range of 'unobtrusive' wireless systems, such as RFID tags and embedded wireless transmitters that can passively or actively transmit and merge information and eliminate (to some extent) the 'human element' in the technology equation, which is often the weakest link in a mission critical system.
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 http://www.shorelineresearch.com.