Mobilized medicine

Norm Lo/RIM
02 Apr 2008

The healthcare industry has lagged behind other industry sectors in adopting wireless technologies - including financial services, real estate, manufacturing and government - yet it's also a sector that stands to benefit tremendously from deploying wireless solutions. Apart from the general benefits of cost-effectiveness and greater productivity, healthcare facilities can gain specific benefits from harnessing mobile and adopting stronger communication tools for team use.

Take patient safety, for example. With doctors, nurses, and support staff members clearly conveying their intent and response in writing via text-based messages, the likelihood of miscommunication in critical areas, such as prescription doses, treatment modalities, patient symptoms and similar factors, can be dramatically reduced. In a well-designed wireless solution, the level of accountability provided by message tracking, auditing, and record-keeping capabilities provides a clear and consistent trail, recording the daily communications and minimizing miscommunication. Electronic prescription techniques, in particular, provide an extra measure of safety and an effective means of cross-checking patient prescriptions against known allergies or interactions with other medications.

A related benefit is real-time access to information. A patient's safety can be at risk, particularly in emergency situations where possible drug allergies, long-term patient histories, recent diagnostic procedures and similar kinds of information are necessary to inform medical practitioners during treatment. Real-time access to patient records and medical information through a variety of mobile devices means less time wasted hunting for information or searching for records. Lab results can be pushed to devices when they're ready, and staff can have easy access to everything from Hospital Information System (HIS) data and electronic versions of medical references to information stored on the web and databases residing on hospital servers. They can even access applications based on web services.

Either way, mobile devices open a window to vital information that can be an essential tool for improving decision making when in the hands of doctors and nurses. However, in order for healthcare facilities to make the best use of wireless, it's important to examine the characteristics of wireless mobility solutions and consider how effectively these solutions meet healthcare industry requirements.

Security and privacy

Industry best practices and regulatory mandates place a high premium on securing electronic data and protecting it against theft or unauthorized viewing. To be effective, data security needs to be integrated into the solution for maximum effectiveness - becoming an integral part of each communication channel, data storage medium and network link. To meet privacy and data integrity concerns, security should provide an umbrella of protection that extends end-to-end, from the handheld computing device across the Internet to the back-end data servers.

Key factors to bear in mind when comparing wireless mobility solutions for healthcare applications include encryption (i.e. data should be encrypted throughout each stage of its lifecycle), lost or stolen device management (i.e. centralized management features that allow administrators to purge data remotely from a missing device) and, of course, password protection and two-factor authentication (as well as best-practice password policies).

These factors are particularly crucial given laws governing private records associated with a patient's health conditions, personal history, medical treatments and similar data. The penalties for violating the regulations can be substantial - and are often directed to the corporate officers who oversee privacy policies.

Wireless communications using the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) protocol provide some degree of protection against hacking, but security can be more effectively reinforced using best-of-breed encryption algorithms such as Triple DES as an integral form of protection.

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