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How to leverage smartphone technologies

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   By Trey Lauderdale, July 2012

Improving communications with smartphones can lead to point-of-care improvements that affect both patient safety and bottom-line savings.

Quick question: What is your hospital’s communication strategy or roadmap?

Chances are either you do not know or your hospital does not have one. The only good thing about this statement is the realization that you are not alone.

I spend a great deal of time with hospital executives, and it would be safe to say less than 10 percent of those I interact with have prepared a communication vision or strategy. This is quite disturbing since we are well aware that the Joint Commission has repeatedly reported “failed communications” at the point of care as one of the top root causes of sentinel events (Joint Commission Report, www.jointcommission.org/sentinel_event.aspx).

If communication is such a fundamental component of healthcare delivery, then why is this not one of the top priorities of every single hospital?

I know I am not the only one who stays awake at night thinking about this problem. So when I visit a hospital or healthcare facility considering a change in their communications systems, I consider it to be a matter of life or death … because it is.

Communication tends to be an afterthought in almost every single project at the hospital. Hospital medical systems – such as infusion pumps, lab systems and ventilators – are purchased to complete a number of specific tasks. One of those tasks is to notify a caregiver when a condition is not normal or there is an issue. As more systems are purchased and workflows are layered on top of each other, the end result is communication overload. The immediate Band-Aid approach to fixing this problem is to enable each system to send alarms to a dedicated pager or device. Many of the medical system companies have realized the need to enable notification to an endpoint, such as email or pagers, and will even sell a pager system with the purchase of the equipment.

On top of that, you have middleware products that enable the consolidation of alarms to one device, which help make great strides in improving communication but decrease the quality of delivery and response. At the end of the day, there is still one fundamental problem: The handsets and endpoints are nowhere near able to consume the amount of data being sent to them; this negatively impacts patient safety and satisfaction.

It’s important that hospitals are aware of how better point-of-care communication can help not only the clinician and hospital, but the patient as well.

Communication failure is not just an issue that affects patients or internal nurse communications; it’s an economic issue for hospitals. It’s estimated that U.S. hospitals waste approximately $12 billion annually (Ritu Agarwal, “Quantifying the Economic Impact of Communication Inefficiencies in U.S. Hospitals,” Research Briefing, winter 2008) due to poor communication among staff involved with patient care. The loss, as a percentage of hospital revenues, equals 1.93 percent; when juxtaposed against the average hospital margin of 3.6 percent, the magnitude of waste is significant.

In fact, studies have shown that improving communications with smartphones leads to point-of-care improvements that affect both patient safety and bottom-line savings in workflow (“A Clinician Usability Pilot: Improving Quality of Care and Workflow Efficiencies Using Mobile Technology,” Research study conducted by the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, July 7, 2008. www.healthcaregoesmobile.com/ss_ucsf). Results showed that nurses using smartphones clinically:

  • Spent 60 percent less time documenting vital signs, saving each clinician 30 minutes per eight-hour shift.
  • Logged in 12 times per shift, rather than 42 times when they did not use mobile technology.
  • Increased point-of-care charting beyond the automated vital-signs acquisition by 20 percent.

Stop and think about the amount of information and power that is in the palm of your hand when you hold a smart device. From the smartphone, you can facilitate multiple forms of instant communication with the touch of a button. Whether it’s an instant message, a phone call, a voice message, a FB chat, a group message, a tweet or a check-in, communication occurs in formats that many of us could not have imagined four to five years ago.

The same technology that facilitates communication in the consumer space has begun to fundamentally change the way we communicate in the healthcare arena. Just as we have the potential to overload ourselves in our personal means of communication, we must be careful to design and plan for proper and formal communication in the healthcare space, or we risk falling into the same communication traps we see with pagers and VoIP phones.

Truthfully, it is not possible to simply give smartphones to everyone at the hospital and expect the technology to work like a plug-and-play system. Traditional hospital communications systems have been built over many years, a little at a time, and upgrades have not occurred across the board throughout the entire hospital.

The end result is often a massive communications conundrum that needs to be addressed throughout multiple layers of hospital departments and management levels. This, in itself, can be a deterrent to many hospitals when faced with the tough decisions of whether to ditch the badges and pagers for smartphones.

However, there are safe, trustworthy and efficient communications options for hospital administrators and IT managers to consider. Some solutions can address not only the smartphone’s ability to combine voice, text and alarm functions into one device, but can also be combined with existing hospital infrastructure and systems, making implementation as seamless as possible.

Smart devices improve the ability of nurses and clinicians to receive presence-based texts, alarms and VoIP alerts in real time, eliminating the need to be tied to a desktop computer or land-line phone. The one-device system also eliminates excess noise and confusion that occurs with multiple devices, and not only improves communication but ultimately means improved patient safety.

Hospitals are increasingly hearing from doctors and nurses clamoring for the ability to use their smartphones at the point of care to help them improve communications, efficiencies and safety. It’s not a question of if hospitals need to move into the realm of smartphones at the point of care for their clinicians, doctors and staff; it’s a matter of when.

About the author

Trey Lauderdale is vice president of innovation, Voalté. For more on Voalté, click here.


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