Health care: Doctors without desks

No industry has as many mobile knowledge workers as health care. That poses real challenges to hospital IT departments trying to help improve patient treatment and maintain employee efficiency. As a latecomer to technology adoption, the health care industry typically builds on the lessons learned in other industries. But when it comes to mobility, hospitals lead the way.

Hospitals have become the proving ground for wireless networks, both in the capability to provide seamless coverage throughout a building and the capability to secure sensitive data transmitted over the air. "There's not the same level of sophistication, complexity, and information richness for mobile outside hospitals," notes Marc Holland, an analyst at IDC Health Industry Insights.

Hospital IT must ensure sufficient radio coverage throughout buildings in areas that networking vendors hadn't even considered, such as basements and stairwells, because hospital staff may need reliable access almost anywhere on campus. This has pushed vendors to improve both roaming capabilities across access points and to add strong encryption and authentication to ensure patient data remains private.

Technology on a human scale

Hospitals tend to be smaller enterprises, where the role of IT is to manage standard systems such as databases and to manage vendors that customize and deploy key technology, such as electronic medical records systems and wireless LANs. "Very few hospitals develop their own software," notes Bill Spooner, CIO of the Sharp Health Care hospital group. That's kept IT at a tactical level, with deep understanding of day-to-day workflows and processes. And that tactical focus has given hospital IT keen insights into how to effectively deploy mobile technology, solving individual problems that would otherwise add up to major adoption barriers.

Take the challenge of wireless network access control in an extremely fluid environment. One frequent method: Deploy two wireless networks, a private one for staff and accredited visiting physicians, and another for the public, using different radio technologies, says Tanya Townsend, IT director at Ministry Health Care's all-digital Saint Clare's Hospital. Another approach is to set up quarantine zones that all users first connect to before their credentials and access rights are verified or their systems have been determined to have required security patches, explains Rafael Rodriguez, associate CIO of Duke University Health System. According to IDC's Holland, the quarantining method adopted by hospitals proved to other industries that wireless networks were secure enough to earn widespread adoption.

Another on-the-ground lesson: power. Everyone knows that laptops and other mobile devices last only a few hours on a charge, despite what ads say. But hospital shifts last eight to 12 hours, so a supplemental power infrastructure must be in place, in the form of power recharging stations and battery "libraries." But where to put them? It's bad for health workers to bend down to plug a laptop into a wall -- which is why, in most hospitals, you'll find recharging stations at arm level, says Rich Temple, CIO of Saint Clare's Health System (no relation to the Wisconsin hospital).

Along these lines, Wisconsin's Saint Clare Hospital discovered that if it kept notebooks near elevator entrances, staff could easily drop off equipment after a shift ended -- reducing the need to track unreturned systems, which had been the case when the laptop repository was in a secure room in the bowels of the building, recalls Wisconsin's Townsend.

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