Keeping updated at the hospital

New technology at Washington facility puts staff in touch instantly


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It happens in even in the best of hospitals. A loved one is in surgery, but you don't dare leave the waiting room for even a quick cup of coffee for fear of missing an update on how the operation is going. Or maybe you're on the other end of the health-care visit; a patient who's been waiting for what seems like forever for a doctor to answer a page so the nurse can adjust your medication or help you out of bed for a shower.

Frustrating on both accounts, to be sure. But that's the lay of the land when you're in a hospital, right?

Well, not at The Washington Hospital.

Last month, the 265-bed community hospital started using an innovative science fiction-like wireless voice communications system that allows doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to instantly connect to one other with a simple tap of a button. And unlike other new technologies that typically take time to be accepted, it was an immediate hit.

So successful is the so-called Vocera badge and its accompanying software that more than 1,400 people-- everyone from nurses, lab technicians and doctors to housekeeping and escort -- have already been trained to use the hands-free, clip-on device, which is about the size and shape of a portable digital voice recorder. As a result, staff are spending more time with patients and less time returning pages or telephone calls.

And it's not the only breakthrough technology the hospital is the first in the area to embrace. In December, it began implementing an Internet-based service that enables members of the Washington Physician Hospital Organization, a partnership of 220 primary care and specialist physicians from 100 practices, to immediately receive clinical information such as lab results, radiology reports and X-rays from the hospital, eliminating the need for paper-based communications.

MobileMD's Health Information Exchange and Enterprise Access solutions provide "real time" transmission, interfacing hospital data into the electronic medical record systems of the subscribing physicians. To date, 27 practices have signed on.

Records, which can be queried over the course of a year, are searchable by categories such as patient, type of document, abnormal test results and emergency room visits. They can also be accessed by a physician from home, allowing doctors to check up on patients without having to call a nurse or to get up to date after a vacation.

For example, if a patient is treated in the emergency room overnight, the primary care physician will have that information in the morning. In the past, the patient most likely would have had to call his or her doctor to alert him to the emergency treatment.

"It's not uncommon for a busy practice to have 100 messages a week, or even a thousand," said physician's organization executive director Charles Vargo. "This puts all that information [which would have been faxed or mailed] into a central clearinghouse."

An even bigger advantage, he said, is that the information is well organized.

"You can't always trust the mail or a patient to get records to his doctor," said Mr. Vargo. "With MobileMD, you get the right information at the right time right at your fingertips."

Simply put, you won't have to worry about forgetting to bring your X-rays to the doctor's office because he'll already have a copy in the system. It also helps avoid unnecessary tests.

The Vocera Communications System, which was first introduced in 2006, similarly has two components: a lightweight, voice-controlled "badge" that operates over a wireless system that links together electronic equipment to form a network and a software package that controls and manages call activity. Together, they allow authorized users to immediately communicate with others through a networked building.

Washington Hospital sought out the new technology, said Rodney Louk, the hospital's vice president of information systems, because communication delays were slowing patient care.

The system solves that problem and keeps track of a mobile staff by giving health care professionals immediate and efficient access to one another. Previously, a nurse would often have to leave a patient's bedside to seek help or medical equipment, or a doctor would have to go in search of a phone to return a page. Both can now make or answer a call on the spot.

Washington Hospital is the first hospital in Washington and Allegheny counties to use Vocera badges buildingwide, and not just in a certain department, said Mr. Louk.

The badges cost $300 each and the hospital bought 865 units, which are signed in and out for each shift.

With speech recognition, the badges allow users to contact other staff by saying the command "call," followed by the person's name; to receive a call, users simply say "yes" or "hello." If, on the other hand, the staff member is busy or in a location that would compromise a patient's confidentiality (i.e., near too many other pairs of ears), a "no" response gives the calling party the option of leaving a message.

The badge, which can also be worn on a lanyard, allows staff to page groups of people, broadcast messages, and talk to more than one person at a time via a conference call. Because it does not store data, there are no security issues.

"You just have to learn the commands and which buttons to use," said voice communications manager Dave Watson, adding that most people can be trained in less than five minutes. "It's very user friendly."

It's so user friendly, in fact, that the hospital is giving the badge to families of surgery patients to free them from having to sweat out a surgery in the waiting room. As long as they stay on hospital grounds, they will receive all updates via the badge as soon as they become available. To date, some 70 families have used the system. And as Martha Stewart might say, that's a good thing.

"They love it," said Barb Stoltz, manager of the outpatient surgery unit, adding that the hospital will probably extend the service to the radiology department soon.

Granted, it's not an exact copy of the V-shaped communicator pin Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard tapped on his chest anytime he needed a crew member to beam him aboard the starship Enterprise, but it's just as effective. According to a study by the University of Maryland, nurses had a 51 percent faster response time to patients requests with Vocera compared with a traditional phone system. That translates into more than 1,500 person hours over the course of a year.

It also makes for a quieter work place since it cuts down on the 4,000 overhead pages and 2,000 beepers Washington Hospital typically counts each month. And as anyone who's ever had to overnight in a ward can tell you, a quieter hospital makes for a more comfortable stay for patients.


Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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