The use of wireless technologies and the importance of mobility solutions are critical to developing an IT strategy for today’s healthcare organizations. Hospitals and clinics provide the perfect environment for these kinds of technologies to make real improvement in workflows. In fact, the market for wireless technologies in healthcare in the US is expected to soar to more than $7 billion in 2010, according to market research firm Kalorama Information. Although healthcare has been a sector initially slow to embrace the technology, its introduction could be revolutionary. Wireless solutions have the potential to drastically improve, amongst other things, communication and information sharing between medical professionals thus reducing costs, saving time and leading to improved patient care.
A unique feature of medical professionals is that they do not spend much of their working days tied to the desk. Instead, physicians and clinicians are very mobile in their work, particularly when visiting and attending to the needs of patients. Keeping up to date with patient information has in the past been cumbersome and slow because of this mobility. But thanks to new mobile technology any confusion can be avoided and information can be retrieved effortlessly and quickly. This is achieved by transferring data from paper to electronic. “A physician moves from room to room examining patients, and interacting with the electronic medical record to acquire clinical data and do document care,” says Steve Flammini, Chief Technology Officer at Boston-based Partners HealthCare – an integrated health system made up of academic medical centers, community hospitals, health centers, a physician network and other health-related entities. “Having to sign-on to devices in every room is clearly very disruptive to workflow. Clinicians would much rather tuck a mobile device under their arm (or in their pocket) thus freeing him or her to move around the practice in a way that is natural for the workflow. The mobile device effectively becomes the chart.”
According to Flammini, a similar situation can also be found in an inpatient hospital setting, where the nursing workflow is inherently mobile. By using wireless LAN along with Bluetooth and barcoding, their work can be made much easier. “As nurses move from patient to patient to administer medications, data and decision support logic must be brought right to the point of care to ensure patient safety,” he explains. “The administration of the medication is the culmination of what we call the medication management loop. The whole process starts with the physician writing a medication order, and is ultimately completed with the administration of the medication by the nurse to the patient. In this case, we want to make sure that the right patient is receiving the right drug at the right time. With the use of mobile technology and barcoding, we can provide positive IDs of the drug, the patient and the nurse. We can check the administration that is being given against the patient’s medication list and also the schedule for these medications.”
It isn’t only medical professionals that need to be mobile, but also medical devices. Having to disconnect devices so that they can be moved around is time-consuming and untidy as wires and cables get in the way and can be dangerous. Mobile applications can increase flexibility and convenience. Flammini describes how an example would be ‘smart’ IV infusion pumps. “IV pumps have been programmable for quite some time now, but we want them to become increasingly smarter, and to be fed directly by the electronic medical record in real time, with dosing and schedule information. Likewise, the pump should report data back into the record. But it’s not practical for the pump to be tied to a wired network connection, so the use of wireless technology is essential in this case.”
Partners Healthcare have introduced a number of solutions in their hospitals and clinics. These include wireless LAN technologies, Bluetooth technologies for connecting peripherals for mobile users, and RFID for location tracking. These technologies have brought with them numerous advantages. “Each of these solutions has benefits,” identifies Flammini. “The wireless LAN has enabled the mobility that is inherent in certain clinical workflows for nursing and physicians. Again, the Bluetooth technologies have enabled mobility with peripheral devices. The cellular-based nurse call systems have enabled timely communications in a clinical setting. The RFID technology has enabled asset tracking.”
Although there are advantages with these technologies, there are also challenges associated with their deployment. Flammini outlines some of these: “It requires a strong working knowledge of radio spectrum management to be able to widely deploy a wireless LAN in the hospital setting. Physical characteristics of the environment must be taken into consideration, and trade-offs must be made with respect to power output, range and placement of access points and wireless devices. I attribute a large share of our success with wireless LAN implementations to the solid spectrum management that has been done here.”
Ensuring that security isn’t compromised is also one of the biggest challenges. “In healthcare, it is especially important to face up to security challenges,” stresses Flammini. “We must have the tools in place to ensure strong authentication and encryption, and to ensure that the infrastructure is not being compromised in any way by intruders.”
Partners HealthCare is eager to utilize mobility solutions in the future to ensure even greater efficiency, flexibility and, ultimately, better patient care. “We will continue rolling out wireless LANs and the applications that work on them,” envisions Flammini. “I predict continued leverage of RFID or positive ID and location tracking, along with more work and development in wide-area technologies to enable remote access to clinical information.”
Partners HealthCare, located in Boston, is an integrated health system founded by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition to its two academic medical centers, the Partners HealthCare System also includes community hospitals, specialty hospitals, community health centers, a physician network, home health and long-term care services, and other health-related entities.
Partners HealthCare is one of the nation's leading biomedical research organizations and a principal teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Partners HealthCare is a non-profit organization.