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Full Nelson: Healthcare Innovation: Kaiser's Garfield Center

Provider's lab offers an exciting peek into the technological future of patient care.

The O-gap, as in the operational gap, is that mysterious abyss between an idea and its fruition. It’s that thing so many creative geniuses run from like a child from spinach. The O-gap happens to be the sweet spot of Kaiser Permanente's Garfield Center, an elaborate warehouse wedged in an office park in San Leandro, Calif. What's inside is a provocative set of healthcare technology innovations that might actually make you want to check in, even if you're not sick.

Garfield Center is a place for testing new technology, not just to see if it works, but to see HOW it works as part of the daily hospital workflow, with teams of doctors and the entire hospital staff. Some of the technology is years away, but much of it gets deployed at Kaiser facilities and university hospitals. Come join us for a ride you won't believe.

Inside the digital operating room, a 600-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility with more gadgets than a Brookstone, is what seems to be fairly mundane medical image routing and archiving technology. Doctors have been sending graphically intense images across networks for years, but this room includes a simple console from which physicians can control what images get transferred to various screens (and locations) easily and swiftly.

Faster, better imaging facilitates more accurate patient information, which not only helps hospitals meet exigent regulatory burdens (the consumption of medical images has exceeded the volume of data kept at the Library of Congress, Kaiser officials told me), but also extends the operating room to specialists in nearby partner hospitals, or nearly anywhere in the world.

There are toys, none better than the visible light device, a wand only slightly bigger than a thermometer but with a tiny camera on its tip. It can be used in minimally invasive procedures, projecting something inside the body in high definition onto a screen. Sean Chai, Kaiser's senior IT manager, tricked me with a life-like image of some internal organ I couldn't guess -- I was thinking intestinal; it turned out to be a melting red candy inside an orange.

As long as we're playing around, why not gesture-based computing ... in the air. Imagine a doctor up to his scrubbed elbows in blood (not yours, let's hope) during surgery and needing a piece of information stored on a nearby computer. With gestures, he could pull up an image and project it in front of him and start interacting with it. This capability is still five to 10 years away, according to Chai.

Kaiser is also trying to redefine patient rooms. We lounged in one with entrances wide enough for entire staff to walk through and a large family area that includes a sofa bed. The bathroom has been made safer, and the entire hospital uses ecofriendly materials, like rubber floors which are less stressful on staff bodies and chemically less harmful.

Rooms at the Garfield Center are equipped with videoconferencing. The aim is to make a TV equipped with a camera an interactive patient care device and patient kiosk. Empower the patient, if you will. Naturally, it accelerates the introduction of telemedicine, and the ability for doctors to make virtual rounds. Home-based versions of this system could provide for tele-dermatology through the use of HD cameras and displays. Kaiser representatives say this capability is starting to take off.

I saw both Cisco and Tandberg equipment in the Garfield Center, as well as Polycom systems on carts (for hospitals that don't want to retrofit rooms). Chai says that they've even used Skype as a low-cost option.

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