Sprint CEO details wireless wonders for health care IT pros

Fast WiMax means video cameras in pills, ambulances connected to ERs

Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse today made the case for using wireless technology, including Sprint's expanding WiMax network, to transform health care.

In a keynote address at the Healthcare Information and and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) annual conference in Atlanta, Hesse said the health care industry is far behind industries like manufacturing and transportation in deploying wireless technology.

"Too many health care facilities have to rely on aging telecom systems that hinder collaboration," Hesse said, noting that the health care industry spends just 2% to 3% of its revenues on IT. Most industries spend 6% to 8% of their revenues on technology.

Hesse, the first CEO of a major wireless carrier to address the HIMSS audience, sees signs of growth in health care spending on telecom. He noted that analysts expect a 44% increase in telecom spending in the industry over the next three years, reaching $12 billion in 2013. About two-thirds of the added spending will go to wireless apps, device and systems.

Although close to two-thirds of physicians today use a smartphone, that number is expected to reach 80% in two years, Hesse noted.

Noting that smartphone apps can already provide instant and secure access to lab results, X-rays and medical records, Hesse pointed to one recently released mobile app that can analyze a person's cough.

He also called attention to an ultrasound probe invented at Washington University in St. Louis that uses just a half watt of power from a cell phone. "That means that ultrasound exams could be conducted nearly anywhere, while the image is piped to a doctor far from the scene," Hesse said. As a result, costs could be cut and a variety of mobile health care professionals, including paramedics, school nurses and battlefield medics, could use the app.

Hesse also said that wireless monitoring of homebound patients with chronic health problems, such as an obese person, could save $21 billion a year in health care spending through lower nursing home costs.

Sprint has stepped up efforts to offer wireless systems to health care professions in recent months and Hesse said the carrier has been urging application developers to building health care apps on multiple platforms, including Android, Palm's webOS, RIM, Windows Mobile and Java.

Hesse also asserted that health care professionals will benefit from using the 4G WiMax technology that Sprint is rolling out with Clearwire. Atlanta is one of 27 WiMax markets that Sprint and Clearwire have already launched, and Sprint plans to cover 120 million people in the U.S. by the end of 2010, Hesse said.

"Imagine having an ambulance equipped with 4G connectivity that can broadcast live video of EMTs treating a patient while on the way to the hospital," he said.

In addition, patients may soon be able to take a pill with a transmitter inside that can send data to a doctor monitoring medication in the patient's system. Eventually, with 4G speeds, the pill could transmit images directly to a doctor's wireless device.

"Before long, you'll take that pill, and your doctor will instantly have a report that will tell him or her whether you are taking your medicine, and show how your body is responding," Hesse said.

"We are entering a time when every device that can be connected will be connected to the Internet and to other devices," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed @matthamblen or subscribe to . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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