It’s not easy working in health care, especially these days. There are shortages of doctors and nurses in many areas. Money is scarce almost everywhere. Yet having the time and resources to do the job right can be a matter of life and death.

So health-care workers should welcome with open arms

any tool that gives them access to information they need in their jobs while saving them steps. And it seems many do welcome portable computers and wireless communications technology that combine to make information accessible as they work with patients — provided, of course, the money is there to pay for it.

The promise is obvious. Health care depends heavily on information — patient records, test reports and drug dosage information, not to mention vast amounts of medical literature doctors may rely on in making diagnoses. Give health-care workers access to this information whether they are at the patient’s bedside, at a nursing station or in an office, and you should be able to save time, ensure that records are more up to date, and make certain that doctors and nurses are always working with the latest information.

“”What folks need to understand about the medical environment is that it’s support, support, support — it’s crucial,”” says Dr. Jay Mercer, an Ottawa family doctor who consults on technology to other physicians and is an enthusiastic handheld computer user.

Of course there are obstacles. “”The biggest challenge always will be where do you put your dollars,”” says Diane Beattie, integrated vice-president of health information and chief information officer for St. Joseph’s Health Care London and London Health Sciences in London, Ont.

“”We all know what’s happening with health care budgets,”” adds Dave Zimmel, partner in the health care solutions practice of Deloitte Consulting in Edmonton, “”and a lot of dollars are being put into front-line care.””

Cost is one of the key obstacles for any new technology initiative in health care, agrees Greg Beat, senior consultant in the network and telecom practice of consulting firm Compass America Inc. in Chicago. For wireless communications in health care, another critical concern is the allocation of bandwidth.

“”As you walk into most hospitals you’ll still see signs that say please turn off your cellular phone,”” Beattie says. That’s because cellphones and other wireless devices may interfere with some medical equipment. Beattie says newer hospital equipment rarely has this problem, but before implementing any wireless technology, hospitals must check carefully for potential interference.

Despite the roadblocks, Canadian hospitals have begun putting wireless technology to work.

The Queen’s University Anesthesiology Informatics Laboratory (QUAIL) is using handheld computers and a wireless network at Kingston General Hospital in Kingston, Ont., to provide instant access to medical data. The system initially serves anesthesiologists, but will expand to other physicia

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