Healthcare IT Grows Up

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print

As information technology changes the face of medicine, IT executives are recognizing the need to build a integrated platforms and share data in innovative ways.

Bruce Haviland knows that building a world-class medical center isn’t a job for the faint of heart. These days, the CIO for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Mercy Hospital finds himself sorting through an array of tools and technologies in the quest to improve health care and manage costs. “It’s critical to put information at the center of the organization and ensure that it’s available when and where it’s needed,” he says. “The ability to integrate systems goes a long way toward defining success.”

It’s a concept that Haviland takes seriously. The Pittsburgh facility, with 50,000 employees and 2,700 physicians, has turned to smartphones to connect medical professionals with electronic medical records (EMRs) and other data. It also has instituted a smart alert system that provides crucial information to caregivers.

UPMC Mercy isn’t alone. Health care reform and growing pressure to maximize productivity and profits are prompting health care providers to adopt an array of technologies, including EMRs, cloud computing, virtualization, analytics and mobility.

Today, says T. Baker Smith, a senior partner at Accenture Health, “Information technology must support virtually every function within a health care environment—from the back office to delivery of care.”

Accenture estimates that over the next three years, 90 percent of hospitals will require new investments or upgrades to meet EMR requirements associated with the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. The stakes are high, Smith says, because health care organizations that meet standards will receive financial incentives, while those that do not risk penalties.

For IT executives, maximizing results is no simple task. “Health care providers must find a way to achieve seemingly contradictory goals,” says Daniel Matlis, president of consulting firm Axendia. “While there’s a need to integrate medical technology and improve patient care and outcomes, there’s also a need to lower costs.”

Of course, the need to maintain patient privacy—particularly as medical professionals tap into data at home, on the road and in remote offices—is also critical. “Maintaining adequate control over the infrastructure is essential,” Matlis says.

Rx for Mobile Success

Over the past few years, information technology has left its imprint on virtually every aspect of medicine. Today, health care providers must manage EMRs, radiological data, patient communication, telemedicine and an array of other tasks through digital tools that increasingly tap into mobile and wireless systems. IT has radically transformed the way doctors, nurses and technicians handle their daily tasks.

Nobody knows this fact better than UPMC’s Haviland. The medical center arms doctors with BlackBerry Curves so they can access EMRs and other data on the go. In many cases, smartphones have replaced mobile carts and eliminated pagers and landlines.

For instance, UPMC uses a smart alert system that informs a doctor when a patient is about to be wheeled into the operating room. This allows the physician to prepare and submit any necessary orders before the patient arrives, saving crucial time.

The medical center also uses alerts to manage aides and orderlies, who constantly transport patients throughout the facility. In the past, these workers finished with one patient before checking back to receive the next assignment. Now they’re able to indicate their status via their smartphone and receive a message informing them of their next assignment.

The system, which runs on a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and uses encryption to maintain compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), replaces handwritten orders. The sender visits a Web page and selects from a template, clicks the desired dropdown box to select a message and then chooses recipients from a list of those currently available.

Doctors input orders through a computerized physician order entry system (CPOE), and nurses and other health care professionals receive the information instantly. Haviland estimates that the system has trimmed wasted time by 20 minutes per employee per day.

Another innovation at UPMC Mercy is a SmartRoom, which incorporates a SmartBoard system. The 55-inch plasma display replaces a traditional grease board. It lists patients’ initials (it is HIPAA-compliant) along with the name of the attending nurse or aide who is responsible for patient care. Nurses can check the system via their smartphones and view assignments and patient data. The tap of a button on the BlackBerry dials a number to the patient’s room.

Not surprisingly, UPMC Mercy is pushing smartphones out to other groups. For example, obstetrics nurses at the hospital now use a pregnancy wheel to calculate the gestation period for women. Another smartphone app reads text messages aloud while a doctor or nurse is driving. “Many of these apps are free, and they are extremely powerful,” Haviland says.

“The ability to use wireless and location-based tools transforms work,” says Accenture’s Smith. “It’s especially valuable for home health care, where a practitioner shows up at a patient’s home and interacts with a doctor or other specialist through a tablet or smartphone.”

This article was originally published on 2011-06-16
Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer for Baseline.
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