Digital Images Unleashed - InformationWeek
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Digital Images Unleashed

Companies save money, improve processes, and boost customer service with digital devices that transmit images wirelessly.

Later this month, Partners HealthCare System Inc. will begin testing cell phones equipped with digital cameras so nurses can transmit digital images of homebound patients' skin lesions, such as pressure sores, to a remote Boston-area office. There, nurses trained in enterostomal therapy, or wound care, will be able to examine the images and recommend treatments to the field nurses. The new telemedicine system will extend care to many more patients than Partners HealthCare would have otherwise been able to treat.

Telemedicine lets nurses treat more patients, Partners' McClure says.

Telemedicine lets nurses treat more patients, Partners' McClure says.
"There are only so many patients these wound-care nurses would be able to see in a day--and there's only so many of these specialty nurses available," says Doug McClure, corporate manager for telemedicine technology solutions at Partners HealthCare, which, in addition to providing home health services, operates several Boston-area hospitals, medical centers, and community health centers.

Partners HealthCare's telemedicine project is one example of how digital-imaging capabilities coupled with mobile connectivity have changed and improved processes in many industries. Real-estate professionals already use digital imaging to market properties and improve sales, but cameras on today's cell phones aren't high-quality enough for this purpose. A digital camera with Wi-Fi capabilities would let them transmit photos faster. Insurance adjusters also could use cameras with wireless connectivity to transmit images to speed claims processing.

The Partners HealthCare pilot illustrates just how useful dual connectivity and digital imaging can be. Last year, images from the cell phones had to be downloaded to PCs once the field nurses got back to their offices, and then transmitted to the wound-care nurses, McClure says. That caused delays of 2-1/2 to five days before the images were input into Partners' workflow software and a wound-care nurse was able to examine them. Now, Partners has programmed the cell phones with transaction software that automatically sends the images wirelessly. Wound-care nurses can examine the images within 20 minutes, allowing them to make treatment recommendations much sooner.

Key to the telemedicine system's success is making the image transmission as accurate and as easy as possible for the field nurses, who don't want to be bogged down with manually resending images or keeping track of which images were successfully received. Partners has programmed the cell phones to automatically resend images that didn't go through because of interrupted cell connections or other reasons.

"We don't want nurses to have to think about the transmitting applications," McClure says. "The phone will fire itself off as nurses are driving, and the phones will also automatically retry sending if there are any bumps in cell connections along the way."

One challenge in the development of the applications was to ensure that the images and data being sent from the cell phones comply with the security and privacy regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. That means having all patient images and data encrypted, McClure says.

Partners HealthCare is testing Motorola MPX220 cell phones with 1-megapixel resolution. McClure expects to use higher-resolution cameras in the future. "The better the image quality, the better for diagnosis," he says. If all goes well, Partners plans to expand the deployment in mid-2006 so that all of its 3,000 home-care patients--of which about 500 have skin wound needs--can benefit from the expertise of remote specialty nurses.

Because cell-phone cameras typically don't have auto-focus mechanisms and typically feature plastic rather than glass lenses, the quality of images isn't as high as regular digital cameras, even with the same resolution, IDC analyst Chris Chute says. Kyocera Corp. and Samsung Electronic Co. are developing 5- and 7-megapixel cell-phone cameras.

For industries that depend heavily on photography as part of their business, digital cameras--not cell-phone cameras--are the preference for mobile digital imaging, Chute says. In the future, though, digital cameras will have the ability to wirelessly send images, he says. In January, Kodak introduced the EasyShare-One, a 4-megapixel digital camera that lets users share images via Wi-Fi, allowing online and E-mail photo sharing without a computer.

In real estate, digital cameras are "second only to cell phones" in their use by agents and brokers, says Todd Costigan, senior manager for the center for Realtor technology at Realtor.org, the technology organization of the National Association of Realtors.

A survey of 1,200 Realtors conducted by Realtor.org last year found that 88% use digital cameras, and 77% said they're "essential" to their work. In that same survey, 98% of the respondents said they use cell phones, and 93% said they're "essential."

Digital cameras are the preferred tool to capture real-estate photos, but lower prices, smaller form factors, and increased battery power might persuade more people to switch to cell-phone cameras in the future. "Why carry two devices if one can work just as well?" Costigan says.

Insurers, too, currently using digital imaging without mobile connectivity, will benefit in the future from added wireless capabilities. During the last three years, State Farm Insurance has transitioned insurance claims and repair-estimate processes to incorporate digital images that replace 35 mm film and instant Polaroid photos. Field claims adjusters use digital cameras to take photos of damaged property and download the images from the cameras' memory chips to the insurer's claims-processing system. The images are integrated into the company's electronic claims, says Mark Winland, State Farm's director of claims automation and procedures.

The digital images save money and time involved with film purchases and processing, and eliminate the need to fax photos, he says. In August, the last group of State Farm's adjusters--those in catastrophe coverage, such as hurricane damage--will transition to digital cameras. "Digital imaging simplifies these processes greatly," Winland says.

Although cell-phone digital cameras have potential for new applications in industries such as health care and real estate, it's not without risks that keep some businesses from embracing the technology.

For instance, golf-ball maker Titleist, a unit of Acushnet Co., is drafting a policy that would restrict the use of cell-phone cameras by employees on company property, a Titleist spokesman says. "We don't have a formal policy in place yet, but it's definitely being considered," he says. Such a policy would be aimed at protecting the confidentiality and security of proprietary information related to the company's manufacturing and research and development sites, including new product development. "Technologies develop so fast, it is hard to keep up," he says. "And it's harder to find cell phones that don't have digital cameras."

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