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Smartphone use pushed by hospitals

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  —  Posted Oct. 26, 2009.

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Many physicians have discovered that smartphones can be a valuable work tool. Now some hospitals are buying smartphones for affiliated doctors and mandating use.

Some 63% of physicians already own smartphones, the Manhattan Research study, "Physicians in 2012: The Outlook for On Demand, Mobile, and Social Digital Media," found. Researchers expect that number to increase to 81% by 2012. Monique Levy, senior director of research at Manhattan Research, said that as more physicians adopt the phones for personal use, momentum builds for hospitals to deploy smartphones systemwide.

There are efficiencies that can be gained from everyone being on the same system, so it makes sense that hospitals would want to streamline use, Levy said.

Industry analysts say several hospitals are buying smartphones for affiliated doctors and clinicians.

A year ago, administrators with the Henry Ford Medical Group in Detroit made the decision to purchase BlackBerry phones for all 1,204 of its physicians. According to Mark A. Kelley, MD, executive vice president of the Henry Ford Health System and CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group, the hospital decided that "communication was essential for patient safety and for collegiality within the practice."

Since then, the BlackBerry has become a "tremendously popular time-saver," Dr. Kelley said. Physicians with a question for a referring physician, for example, can get an answer without playing phone tag. And physicians can give patients their direct cell phone numbers rather than the number to an answering service.

"It's very impressive to the patient," Dr. Kelley said. And most important, "People don't abuse them."

Henry Ford isn't the only group figuring out that while pagers and smartphones can both let physicians know their services are needed, smartphones also allow the caller to state the issue immediately without waiting for a return call.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hasn't gotten rid of its pagers but is experimenting with using smartphones outside of the executive suite.

William Fera, MD, vice president of medical technologies for UPMC, said the group was looking for a way to get rid of the utility belts most nurses wear by using one device for both data and voice communications. It started a 60-day clinical pilot at UPMC Mercy hospital in September.

Mercy, acquired by the UPMC system about two years ago, didn't have the infrastructure for internal phones.

Bruce Haviland, chief information officer at Mercy, said the hospital was looking to go beyond the traditional pager and acquire a communication system that offered mobility. It decided to conduct the pilot program to "prove that by putting a mobile device in the hands of clinicians, we could decrease time to get a hold of somebody on the phone, time to reach a physician for a consult ... and hopefully have an impact on ED throughput." The hospital selected a busy medical-surgical floor to participate in the pilot.

Unlike Henry Ford, which issues phones to individual physicians, who then have them while off-duty, Mercy bought phones that are handed off from shift to shift.

In addition to using the devices for physician-to-physician or physician-to-nurse communication, Mercy is also using them to replace the standard nurse call button. Nurses give their assigned cell phone number to inpatients, who call the nurses directly. This allows the nurse to gather information needed to triage care or handle questions without stopping what they are doing.

Manhattan Research's Levy said physicians will take advantage of more functionalities the longer they use smartphones. Right now, many physicians are using the phones for communication and research. But soon the phones will be used for patient monitoring and administrative tasks, she said.

Fera said the group already has an application that allows physicians to access patient records via their own mobile devices. But in the future, he sees smartphones becoming the "work engine for all ancillary nurses and staff in the hospital." He would like to see the devices used for things such as the creation of task lists, barcoded medication administration and patient alerting.

But just because physicians can accomplish a task using a smartphone, it's not always practical, Dr. Kelley said. While Henry Ford's physicians have the ability to access patient records via their BlackBerry phones, few do because of the limitations of the small screen.

As a standard issue, every physician has a version of the drug reference application Epocrates, Dr. Kelley said. Physicians also can customize their phones and add applications they find useful.

Dr. Kelley said the smartphone is the 21st-century beeper in many ways. "The beeper was very passive, and this can be passive, too."

"If it's a call from the ER, you probably have to take that. But if it's a call from your secretary, you can finish your exam and then step out, or just listen to your voice mail."

Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  — 

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