Hospital grasps wireless handheld opportunity

A consortium of technology companies is working with a Hamilton-based hospital to test out ways that wireless devices could improve the working lives of physicians and other health care providers.

The recently-formed Wireless Technology Consortium (WTC), which includes consulting firm Inet International, Palm Canada, Netmanage, Telus and Compuware Corp., said Hamilton Health Sciences Corp. will conduct pilot projects using personal digital assistants (PDAs) this fall.

The pilot project will be focused around a single task: the documentation and reporting workflow of diagnostic imaging reports in Hamilton Health Science’s radiology department.

Right now the hospital has these reports dictated and printed on paper, which are placed in slots with the doctor’s name on it. Doctors typically pick them up and sign them off, or send them back for changes. Within the same hospital system, which includes a facility at McMaster University, the reports can also be dictated and corrected on computer. The problem is that doctors like Brian Yemen, one of the hospital’s radiologists, are constantly on the move, travelling between four sites including the university and Hamilton General Hopsital. With a PDA, reports can be downloaded and corrected on the fly, creating efficiencies and potentially saving money for hospitals who employ administration staff to get the reports approved in a timely manner.

“I’m at different hospitals at different times,” Yemen said. “If I don’t have access to that computer at that site at that time or I’m not in the hospital, I can’t do anything with those reports.”

Hamilton Health Sciences began working on the wireless initiative after attending an Inet seminar that discussed various ways to refocus the life cycle of e-business projects. Steve Goldberg, Inet’s managing director in Thornhill, Ont., said a prototype application to transmit the data wirelessly through PDAs took only three days. The challenge is to scale that capability to 150,000 users or more. That’s why a phased approach, looking solely at diagnostic imaging reports, is best, he said.

“If you took at look at the diagnostic imaging process, there are about 24 steps,” he said. “It’s very involved. We tried to nail it down to that one sign-off report process.”

Wireless devices running over a cell-phone network aren’t appropriate for hospital environments where signals could disrupt other medical equipment. While the WTC project will be of greatest benefit for doctors travelling outside the hospital, the group is considering an approach whereby radiologists could use a kiosk running an 802.11 wireless LAN in which a PDA would be connected via a cradle.

Telus Mobility’s wireless data manager, Jawad Shah, said wireless LANs could also be connected to the hospital’s existing system.

“It’s just a PMCI card,” he said. “It’s exactly like your office Ethernet. That’s been approved.”

The consortium’s work will evolve through a “virtual research lab” over a virtual private network that will try to develop mobile Internet standards that will work in most hospital environments. Goldberg said this effort would likely take at least five years, once the results have been reviewed by academic journals.

Though he has only been working with health-care providers a short time, Goldberg said he had learned a lot about how difficult it is to bring technology into the picture.

“The resistance is huge,” he said. “Not because anyone’s afraid of change. The reason, I’m finding, is the risk of change. We could disrupt care, and it’s all driven by the physician because they’re accountable for that.”

“It really depends on what’s in it for you,” said Yemen. “If this is going to make my life a little easier, I’ll certainly pay a lot more attention than if it’s just really one more step to get to the same end. For (the typing pool), it’s a lot easier, because they have to hound us. There are other physicians who are calling for the report. The sooner I can get it in, the less hassle it is for them.”

Though Shah said Telus has worked on some similar projects in British Columbia and Alberta, this represents the first time the company has participated in a major IT/healthcare initiative in Ontario.

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