Magazine Article | September 1, 2003

Healthcare Organizations Mandate Mobile Computing

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Mobile computing technology can meet the demands of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and standards set by healthcare coalition The Leapfrog Group.

Integrated Solutions, September 2003

They sound more like cartoon characters from a children's fable, but HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and The Leapfrog Group are significant to IT directors in healthcare. Published by the Department of Health and Human Services, HIPAA imposes sweeping standards for the privacy and protection of all electronic health information that is linked to individuals. HIPAA affects all health-related organizations in the United States, from one-physician offices to hospitals, insurance companies, and other healthcare organizations. HIPAA regulations went into effect in April 2003, and companies must comply in the next two years.

The Leapfrog Group is a coalition of more than 140 public and private organizations that provide healthcare benefits to 34 million consumers in all 50 states. The goal of the group is to encourage healthcare providers to dramatically improve their safety standards. Providers who make "big leaps" in safety will be rewarded with preferential use by the group's members. The Leapfrog Group includes several Fortune 500 companies including AT&T, FedEx, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, IBM, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Verizon, and Xerox.

HIPAA requires healthcare organizations to ensure the security of their networks and the privacy of their patient information, while The Leapfrog Group has established standards such as computerized physician order entry. "Hospitals can't comply without more automation," says Al Bowman, VP of business development for wireless data solution provider Mobile Computing Corp. (Toronto). "In the healthcare industry, it's a no-brainer. They have to eliminate stacks and stacks of paper."

Rick Hodge, VP of sales and marketing at InfoLogix (Bensalem, PA), a manufacturer and reseller of wireless mobile products, said HIPAA and The Leapfrog Group are causing healthcare providers to completely revamp their IT infrastructures. "They don't require specific technologies, but the objections they're putting into place can be met with mobile computing," Hodge says. "And you can't make today's healthcare systems wireless and not change anything else. You have to change operationally."

HIPAA's privacy-oriented rules are causing healthcare providers to upgrade their data security systems as well. Proximity readers on computers that access patient records is one emerging security trend. "The biggest breach in privacy is a doctor walking away from a terminal without logging out," says Hodge. "With a proximity reader, when the doctor [wearing a proximity/ID card] steps a few feet away, the screen automatically goes blank. When the doctor goes to another terminal, that session starts where he left off."

Changes in security are leading to overall IT upgrades in healthcare. "They're saying, 'Let's focus on more than HIPAA; let's redesign the entire process,'" says Ralph Spagnola, VP of sales at tablet PC manufacturer Motion Computing (Austin, TX). "Software security is the most common form of security, and some combine that with biometrics [e.g. fingerprint scanners]. The key is that if you lose the mobile device, the technology can't allow the data to be accessible to anyone who finds the device."

Mobile Devices Save Lives, Reduce Expenses
Mobile devices most commonly seen in healthcare are tablet PCs and wireless PDAs (personal digital assistants), many equipped with bar code scanners. Admitting stations and emergency rooms were the first to use these devices, and now they are making their way to patients' bedsides. Electronic medication management (i.e. nurses giving medicine to patients) and computerized physician order entry (i.e. doctors electronically ordering tests and prescriptions) are gaining popularity.

"Nurses scan your ID badge or bracelet and then scan the medication or materials to make sure you receive the proper care," says InfoLogix' Hodge. "One of our hospital customers has saved a lot of lives by scanning the meds. If they scan the medicine before they give it to you, they know it's the right medication, you're the right person, and they know if you were administered other medications earlier."

While patient safety is the chief concern at hospitals, finances are another major factor. If the mobile devices reduce the amount of medicine mix-ups, they will concurrently reduce the incidences and expenses of malpractice suits and insurance. Also, when mobile devices are used at the bedside, charges for services are more accurately tracked. "When the doctor orders medication, that data goes to both the pharmacy and the billing department," says Motion Computing's Spagnola. "The appropriate charge is being captured and, at the same time, paper and additional data entry are eliminated."

Another example of mobile devices making their way beyond the admitting station is patient data capture in the exam room. Spagnola said a Mobile Computing healthcare customer uses a PC tablet to capture information, and software will generate a report for the doctor. "The software organizes and interprets the data," Spagnola says. "It not only helps the doctor diagnose a patient's condition, but if the patient is eligible for a new drug trial, the software lets the doctor know. The tablet PC helped increase the number of people who took advantage of the trial."

Anticipated Trends In Mobile Healthcare
The trend of healthcare data collection becoming more mobile is certain to continue. "Four years ago you couldn't make an application mobile without doing a lot of work," says InfoLogix' Hodge. "Now vendors realize the end user benefits of mobility, and they design applications to work on mobile devices' small screens. The people running the hospital see the benefits, too, and want more mobile-centric technology."

Also sparking an increase in mobile solutions is the rapidly dropping cost of hardware, says Mobile Computing's Bowman. "When we look at numbers for our own solutions, it costs 20% of what it did two years ago to deploy a wireless system," he says. "The cost of hardware is almost as low as it will ever be - about $200 for a pocket PC with a Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) card. Future devices will have more memory and software, but the cost won't go much lower."