Doctors clamor for PDAs

At most hospitals, getting physicians to warm up to technology is a challenge. But at George Washington University Hospital, it's the doctors who are clamoring for more -- in this case, personal digital assistant (PDA) access to data and applications.

Universal Health Services Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa., which owns the hospital, has run two pilot programs at three hospitals, each with a different PDA, says CIO Linda Reino.

Before and after each pilot, Reino meets with developers and users to plan and solve problems. When she was planning the first pilot at the Washington-based hospital, Reino says, she asked its emergency room director, Andrew Robottom, if his department would like to participate. "We jumped at the chance," says Robottom, whose group was targeted to use the PDAs for patient data input.

Having Robottom's feedback on how the applications needed to work on the floor was invaluable, Reino says. But she and her group also met with doctors. "We talked with the physicians to prioritize what information they wanted if they only have a small screen," she says. "What do they want to see?"

That's the main challenge for wireless developers, Robottom says: to take the browser format and create an interface with the mainframe applications and to be able to present information in a useful format with as few keystrokes as possible.

The biggest investment for the hospital will be software, says Ken Dulaney, mobile technology analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Hardware has also been an issue. The team hit an unexpected snag with handhelds from Palm Inc. in Milpitas, Calif., Reino says. To navigate the intranet via PC, physicians and hospital staff used the device's arrow keys. But the arrow keys didn't work on the PDAs. "The tech designers said, 'Well, we'll just tell them not to use them,'" says Reino. "And I said, 'That's crazy!'"

Reino says she tried other PDAs, including Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq, Handspring Inc.'s Visor and Sharp Electronics Corp.'s Zaurus. "We liked the flexibility of the built-in keyboard, but we're still researching devices, and we continue to monitor the progress and changes that we see in the Palm world," she says.

George Washington University Hospital will support whichever of the leading PDAs physicians own, says Mark Fehling, the hospital's CIO. Having physicians supply their own PDAs lets them indulge their preferences and combine personal and professional use on one PDA, while saving the hospital from having to buy and maintain the devices.

By year's end, the first phase of the PDA implementation will begin, allowing physicians read-only access via PDAs to a customized presentation of Short Messaging Service patient data. Nurses will eventually carry them as they now carry radio-frequency phones, Fehling says.

For Reino, who piloted Universal Health Services' first wireless LAN eight years ago, the mobility of wireless, where doctors can pull a PDA from their pockets and securely view patient records and write orders for care and medication, is key to the future of the health care industry.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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