HIMSS 2010: The Doctor (of Technology) Is In The House

As an industry, healthcare is full of cutting-edge technologies used to extend and save lives. But beyond the core operating room and hospital room technologies, health information technology (HIT) is struggling to move into the 21st century.

Walking the show floor at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Conference, which wraps up today in Atlanta, I was struck by the feeling that the tech of healthcare feel about 8-10 years behind.

I initially chalked it up to my own sense of déjà vu, as the last show I attended at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) was on September 11, 2001, during which John Chambers showed off a technology called "unified communications" that tied together videoconferencing and voice-over-IP phones for something he called "telepresence."

Yet, fast forward to the 2010 show and the two biggest announcements, from a streaming perspective, were around telepresence and unified communications.

Both Polycom and Cisco announced telepresence suites that tied high-definition videoconferencing into voice over IP (VoIP) phones and unified messaging. With privacy issues of great concern, both Polycom and Cisco are attempting to address workflow deficiencies and enhance patient care while also maintaining patient confidentiality.

"Polycom understands the challenges faced by healthcare organizations today, and we've been improving communications in this industry for a number of years," said Ron Emerson, director of global healthcare markets for Polycom. "We are accelerating efforts with Polycom Open Collaboration Network (POCN) partners to offer our customers fully integrated end-to-end solutions that can help improve patient care and enable organizations to achieve greater efficiencies."

Geared toward remote and medically underserved areas, Polycom says its HDX telepresence videoconferencing system is capable of delivering HD video at 512Kpbs for use in patient assessment, remote consultations and medical education.

Polycom's video offering for its healthcare-focused telepresence tools also included a Converged Management Application (CMA) desktop-based video conferencing system that provides 720p video output, for flexible, PC-based video communications supporting up to 720p high definition video for the sharpest images and most accurate patient assessments.

In addition, Polycom addresses some of the advances made in wireless and high-speed internal networks in hospitals via its wireless SpectraLink handsets. With SIP integration for interoperability with the videoconferencing solutions, these SpectraLink handsets also include Nurse Call and Smart Bed Monitoring solutions, for patient-nurse communications.

Finally, for offices where prescriptions may be filed, Polycom is addressing the move to e-scripts, or electronic prescription entry via a Polycom VVX 1500 phone that integrates a touch screen-capability with a user interface based around SureScript entry and transmission.

Not to be outdone, Cisco's HealthPresence is the company's healthcare-focused telepresence solution.

"HealthPresence creates new, streamlined clinical encounters by integrating two technology innovations—Cisco TelePresence and Cisco Unified Communications," the company said in a press release.

Similar to the Polycom solution, Cisco sees unified communications between its videoconferencing and mobile voice- and video-over-IP devices as a way to help streamline patient care. Cisco goes a bit beyond Polycom, however, by also tying in connected medical devices.

"A goal of Cisco HealthPresence is to support collaboration and personalization that is rarely accomplished in traditional face-to-face consultations," said Irene Sandler, Senior Marketing Manager, Cisco TelePresence.

To accomplish this move beyond face-to-face, Cisco has the idea that patients using HealthPresence will see images and listen to sounds from a variety of diagnostic devices, in the same way that the clinicians (doctors, nurses, assistants) see and hear the same feedback. One such example would be a digital stethoscope.

Cisco notes the scarcity and productivity of clinical expertise, as well as a need for information exchange and collaboration, as primary drivers in the unified communications approach.

"We want to engage patients in ways that make them more active participants in consults," said Sandler, adding that the entire toolset is Cisco-derived, as the acquisition of Tandberg—a Polycom competitor—has not been finalized.

We'll look at healthcare tech more soon, as it is a growth market that dwarfs all but the entertainment industry. But at a simple level, healthcare is struggling kick its dependency of simple technologies like paper.

Electronic medical records (EMRs or EHRs) and information exchange between service vendors (hospitals, physicians practices) and clinicians (doctors, nurses, radiologists) have a huge roadblock in paper, as well as in the interoperability of sending database information as well as the movement of video files and large still images from location to location.

The best way I can describe this is to use the title of a book that my seatmate was reading as I flew from Atlanta to the RSA show in San Francisco: Paper Kills 2.0 is a new book based on a series of white papers edited by David Merritt, VP and national policy director for the Center for Health Transformation. The book advocates an approach to electronic health records (EHR) that not only improves efficiencies but also save lives.

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