Hospital reaps healthy returns from wireless

Swedish Medical Center's new wireless network results in better patient care and a revenue boost.

Seattle's Swedish Medical Center, a three-hospital campus with more than 7,000 employees and annual revenues of US$1 billion, was mired in paper.

Like many healthcare organizations, the center relied on paper-based charts to track and care for the thousands of patients its serves each year. But reliance on paper often led to delays in care and in billing, as doctors and nurses searched through files to find the right information to diagnose and treat patients.

"In healthcare, a lot of the process is hand-offs," explains Steve Horsley, director of IT at the center, and a speaker at Network World's recent IT Roadmap Conference & Expo in Dallas (hear a podcast interview with Horsley). "Information passes from the patient to the medical assistant to the nurse to the doctor, back to the nurse, and back to office personnel. Forms would be sitting on people's desks or were hard to read and so forth, leading to delays. And through all that series of hand-offs, the services that were provided were not always captured appropriately."

That meant problems in billing. "Physicians weren't documenting services appropriately on paper, and if something isn't documented correctly, government regulations say you can't bill for it," Horsley says.

In 2003, the center decided to tackle its paper problems by implementing a wireless network among its metropolitan campus as part of a new electronic medical records (EMR) system. The idea was to provide real-time, easy-to-use, accurate information to clinicians right at the point of care.

"With wireless and the new EMR system, critical, accurate information is available to nurses and physicians in real time, reducing delays and resulting in better patient care overall," Horsley says. "It also makes it far easier to code the procedures appropriately for billing purposes."

The center's new wireless network, which cost US$3.8 million and was completed in October 2007, consists of more than 1,300 Cisco access points distributed among eight locations and linked via a metro Ethernet network. Overall, it supports about 600 wireless workstations on wheels (WoW), 400 wireless laptops and 200 tablet PCs. And the benefits have rolled in accordingly. (See related story on lessons learned.)

A bevy of benefits

"The key benefit of the new setup is the mobility of information," Horsley says. Physicians no longer have to search for charts that may be on a nurse's desk or in a different office. "With the wireless network, any clinician that needs access to a patient's information can get it right away, wherever they are. It's always available."

Billing problems have also been greatly reduced. Each time physicians provide a service, they key it in to the EMR system along with the appropriate code for tracking and billing purposes. If the service doesn't match the diagnosis, the EMR system raises a flag and notifies the physician immediately. Similarly, if a service is miscoded, the system flags that, enabling the physician to fix it -- before it leads to delays in care and in billing.

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