Wireless To The Rescue - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications

Wireless To The Rescue

Doctors and nurses spend a lot of time on their feet, rarely standing still, moving from room to room, floor to floor, examining and caring for patients. While technologies such as electronic medical records and computerized physician order-entry systems are beginning to reduce much of the paperwork involved with health care and improve the accuracy of information, these advances alone don't address a caregiver's need for mobility.

In a wired environment, taking full advantage of real-time electronic information requires having a terminal available at every patient's bedside--a luxury few hospitals can afford. Instead, patient information is often collected first on paper by doctors and nurses, and then entered into a computer at a nursing station or by office staff in a doctor's practice. That re-entry of data opens the door for mistakes caused by illegible handwriting and human error. It also can delay the most current information from being available at patients' bedsides, where physicians often make life-or-death decisions in a matter of minutes.

That's where wireless technologies are beginning to make a difference. Devices such as PDAs, tablet computers, and laptops are becoming invaluable tools for doctors and nurses to access and enter patient data in real time. "Wireless products untether physicians, nurses, and other clinicians from their desks and let them move to the point of patient care," says John Distefano, VP and technology service leader for health care at IT consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. "Wireless is a breakthrough technology in health care. Rather than caregivers being encumbered by technology, they're enabled by it."

Deployments of wireless technologies, at both inpatient and outpatient settings, are on the rise. Almost two-thirds of business-technology executives in the health-care industry say handheld computing devices are included in their planned IT projects this year, according to 50 health-care companies that participated in the InformationWeek Research Outlook 2004: Priorities 1Q study.

In one of the country's largest outpatient technology initiatives, health insurer WellPoint Health Networks Inc. said in January that it's giving as many as 19,000 of its busiest physicians a choice of either a free PDA bundled with software for doctors to send prescriptions from their offices to pharmacies electronically or a desktop PC to reduce paperwork involved with activities such as claims processing (see "Health Insurer Gives Away Hardware To Boost E-Prescriptions"). WellPoint executive VP and CIO Ron Ponder says the products, which have a total retail value of $40 million, are aimed at "jump-starting E-prescriptions" in physician offices.

Dr. Bill McClatchey, an internal-medicine specialist and chief medical information officer at Piedmont Medical Center, a 600-bed hospital in Atlanta, says the timing is good for wireless technologies at the point of care. Over the last few years, much of the clinical technology investments by health-care providers have been focused on integrating patients' clinical care information such as drug, lab, and vital-sign records. Now wireless technologies such as PDAs provide the mobility that's needed for physicians to access that integrated patient information.

Dr. Darrick Nelson -- Photo by Matthew Mahon

Using PDAs, doctors affiliated with Christus can illustrate to patients the progress of their health, Nelson says.

Photo of Dr. Darrick Nelson by Matthew Mahon
Brigham and Women's Hospital, Christus Spohn Hospital, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and San Antonio Community Hospital are among a growing number of companies embarking on wireless initiatives. "We anticipate that PDAs, laptops, and wireless tools will be as essential as stethoscopes," says Cathy Duffy, an RN and clinical applications manager at Christus Health System, an operator of 40 Catholic hospitals in six states. Christus Spohn Hospital is deploying a wireless strategy that lets doctors access and enter information at patients' bedsides via Palm Pilot Tungsten C PDAs running PatientKeeper patient-record software.

The Christus rollout began in mid-December, and so far 55 of about 250 affiliated doctors have started using the PDAs to access patients' lab and radiology reports, drug information, "and anything that would've been contained in a paper record," says Dr. Darrick Nelson, a family-practice physician affiliated with Christus and a medical-informatics fellow. Nelson is one of the 55 doctors using a PDA for patient care at Christus.

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