More healthcare organizations are transmitting patient health information over wireless LANs, giving care-providers real-time access to mission-critical data in countless locations. Clinical information tools and decision support technology that increase patient safety are now being brought to the fingertips of physicians and nurses on compact, sophisticated mobile computing devices. And as wireless hardware, software, Wi-Fi standards and security protocols improve, the question is not when to deploy wireless, but rather how to utilize it to meet its maximum potential.
In the Healthcare Information Manage-ment Systems Society (HIMSS) 2004 Leadership survey, 300 executives managing the information technology (IT) operations at more than 700 U.S. hospitals and healthcare organizations reported the urgency to adopt more IT; particularly bar-coded medication management (52 percent), electronic medical records (52 percent), clinical information systems (52 percent) and computerized physician order entry (51 percent). The pressure to implement healthcare IT mounts on both state and national government levels: President George Bush wants Americans to have electronic health records by 2014.
Where does wireless factor into this?
Everywhere. The practicality of wireless in healthcare is that it brings myriad clinical information systems to the fingertips of doctors, nurses and clinicians at the point of patient care. With a personal digital assistant (PDA), a physician can within seconds look up the clinical history of a patient in the emergency room; a nurse down the hall can update patient information via tablet PC while at the bedside rather than scurry back to a wired PC, while another care provider can more safely administer medication with the help of a wireless cart and bar code scanner.
Minimizing the burden of paperwork and associated costs, the right wireless strategy can improve operational efficiency and dramatically reduce medical errors, which already take the lives 195,000 Americans annually, estimates HealthGrades. Frost & Sullivan reports that adverse drug errors alone accumulate an estimated cost of $4,600 per error to the hospital, not to mention liability costs.
The time is right
While studies indicate the advantages inherent with going wireless, medical professionals are in many cases demanding nothing but unwired care. Physicians are more tech-savvy than once perceived. Forrester Research says physicians own more technology and go online more often than do other consumers, particularly in the adoption of PDAs. Physicians are five times as likely to carry a PDA than are typical consumers, Forrester reports.
Demographics factor into this. Frost & Sullivan reports that an estimated 80 percent of medical students and residents use PDAs as part of their daily work. A report in the Journal of the Medical Informatics Association found that overall prevalence of PDA use decreased with age: trainees were more likely than attendings to use PDAs for patient care resources, such as medical references and medical calculators.
Physicians on the wireless bandwagon discover that PDAs grant anywhere access to clinical histories, treatments, medications, tests, lab results and insurance information. The mini-sized devices tap into distant hospital locations and access patient record systems, insurance companies or hospital database systems.
At Berkshire Health System, a 330-bed, two-hospital system in Pittsfield, Mass., physicians utilize PDAs with embedded PatientKeeper software to connect them to the hospital's Meditech electronic CPOE, EMR and PCS (patient care system). While doctors and clinicians prefer handhelds, nurses like laptops fixed on mobile carts to perform assessments and real-time charting, as well as retrieve vital patient information.
These computers on wheels, a.k.a. COWs, souped up with more ergonomic and compact designs, are being wheeled into the ER and surgery suite. For medication management, nurses wheel them next to a patient's bed and use a bar code scanner (which is sometimes wireless) to confirm that the medication was ordered by the physician and administered correctly by the pharmacy.
Wireless becomes reliable
Chuck Podesta, CIO of Berkshire Health System, says the hospital implemented a Cisco Systems Inc. 802.11b (2.45 GHz, 54 Mbps) wireless network for Meditech's PCS. "At the time we purchased PatientKeeper, their only mode of network connection was infrared stations set up throughout