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02:25 PM

Mobile Care

Universal's wireless network frees up staff, improves care, and cuts costs

When the Spring Valley Medical Center opened its doors in December, there wasn't a lot of IT equipment to plug in. That's because the 175-bed hospital, the fourth hospital in the Valley Health System in Las Vegas, was built with an entirely wireless infrastructure. Those familiar with Valley Health's parent company should expect nothing less. The hospitals are owned by Universal Health Services Inc., a $3.6 billion-a-year for-profit health-care-management company that plans to grow either by building new hospitals or acquiring and revamping existing medical facilities around the world.

Linda Reino -- Photo by Dominic Episcopo

Every new Universal Health building is ready for wireless, CIO Reino says.

Photo of Linda Reino by Dominic Episcopo
Key to getting a return on its investments is using state-of-the-art technology to improve patient care and cut costs. For the past eight years, wireless technology has been at the top of Universal Health's IT agenda, and last year, CIO Linda Reino made it a requirement that every facility had to budget for and build a wireless infrastructure by 2005. What's more, "every new building or new floor we build is wirelessly enabled from day one," Reino says. "I want people to take wireless for granted."

Right now, Reino estimates 65% wireless penetration in her nearly 100 facilities. And while it's easy for her to see how each of Universal's 26,000 employees--from physicians to social workers--can benefit from wireless, she knows that simply installing the technology isn't enough. In addition to trial-and-error approaches to finding the best applications and devices for each user, Reino must deal with security and privacy requirements, staff training and change-management issues, fear of technology among patients, and expensive technology if she wants to be successful. With her boundless energy and passion for business technology, Reino is the person for the job.

The payoff for using wireless is there, though Reino admits she's still working out ways to quantify the technology's return on investment. In the long term, wireless will save money versus wired technology because the investments are made for each user rather than each hospital room. So if a hospital is only 75% full, 25% of the IT investment isn't going unused.

Universal Health isn't alone in its dedication to wireless technology. Sutter Health, a nonprofit hospital network in Northern California, is Wi-Fi-enabling all of its facilities to give doctors access to a centralized hub that lets all apps across the hospital communicate with each other. Why? Because that's easier and less expensive than trying to wire old buildings.

But as wireless embracers, Universal and Sutter aren't yet the majority, says Eric Brown, principal analyst at Forrester Research. While many in health care understand that handing wireless devices to people or Wi-Fi-enabling hospitals can improve care and cut costs, a lot of hospitals have already made other investments. "Early movers committed to PC ubiquity, so they have the issues of pulling cables from the walls," he says. "They think, 'Finally Wi-Fi is here, but it's too late for me.'"

Still, Reino sees the returns and keeps pushing for innovation. Technology makes hospital workers more precise, cutting down on errors, she says. She knows it's safer to secure data electronically than for a clinician to guard a paper chart. User interviews help her determine productivity gains. For example, Reino has learned that some caseworkers have gained at least a half-hour a day by using laptops instead of returning to their offices to do paperwork. "Technology is expensive, and it's not going to do any good to make health care more expensive," she says. "But if it saves a patient's life and gives a clinician back 30 minutes of his day, it's worth it."

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