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Healthcare CIOs Juggle More Mobile Challenges

Bring your own mobile device phenomenon and fast-evolving technologies challenge hospital IT execs on multiple fronts, from interference to bandwidth.
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As mobile devices multiply in numbers and grow more sophisticated, healthcare CIOs are facing all kinds of new challenges in distributing information and keeping networks secure.

The "bring your own device," or BYOD, phenomenon in hospitals has created a networking problem for CIOs by driving up demand on wireless LANs and has kept security officers busy because it's difficult to control all the data that flows to hundreds or thousands of handheld computers and smartphones, according to Kenneth Kleinberg, a senior healthcare director for health consulting firm Advisory Board Co. Kleinberg spoke Friday to about 75 healthcare CIOs, IT security officers, and vendors at the research firm's membership meeting in Chicago.

Smartphones in particular are optimized to work on or at least coexist with Wi-Fi networks. But with the occasional older cell phone still in use, "dealing with WLAN interference may be costing you more than you realize," Kleinberg said.

One CIO present said he found ballasts in lighting fixtures interfering with his hospital's real-time location system. "Mobility is not new," Kleinberg noted. "What I think is new is the degree of adoption."

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According to Kleinberg, security needs to be in place in at least five domains: applications, mobile device management, servers and networks, operating systems, and devices. And there needs to be enough bandwidth to support the explosion in demand, whether from BYOD or from enterprise-issued devices.

Kleinberg noted that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has announced plans to deploy 100,000 touch-screen tablets throughout its massive enterprise, many of them to Veterans Health Administration clinicians. "I wonder if these folks knew what they were really getting into?" Kleinberg said of VA CIO Roger Baker and his IT team.

The choices for mobilizing a workforce might seem daunting. Kleinberg showed a slide illustrating the multitude of options for devices, operating systems, wireless carriers and network vendors, middleware providers, and application types for healthcare. Each category presented a unique set of issues.

Considerations for devices include size, weight, durability, cost, features, whether individuals or the institution owns the devices, battery life, and—unique to healthcare environments—how well each unit stands up to frequent disinfecting.

"The middleware category is getting real fat now," Kleinberg added. His list included Citrix, Microsoft, Wavelink, AirWatch, MobileIron, Good Technology, Tangoe, Zenprize, SAP/Sybase, Symantec, and "many others." This group even has two key acronyms: MDM for mobile device management and MAM for mobile application management.

And this rapidly maturing industry segment can change in a short period of time. Remember the Intel Mobile Clinical Assistant platform of rugged portable computers, built especially for healthcare environments? Introduced in 2008 to much fanfare, the Mobile Clinical Assistant has been "blown out of the water" in the last year by tablets, especially Apple's iPad, Kleinberg said.

Apple is doing the same thing to Research In Motion in the enterprise smartphone market, as the iPhone is overtaking the long-dominant BlackBerry.

On the horizon are all kinds of new hardware and hardware-like applications that could become commonplace in short order. Think "virtual" keyboards that project onto any flat surface, bendable displays, wearable computers, projection displays including those built into glasses, and improved battery life. Kleinberg said he has seen a prototype of a sneaker that can charge mobile devices.

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Jessica Davis, Senior Editor