The Upside and Downside of Mobile Devices in Post-Acute Care

I was recently talking with an acquaintance when they asked me what I thought the next big thing in business would be. I’m positive they were waiting for me to say the new thing in business would be some sort of new synergy. Understandably, they were a little confused when I said that both laptop and desktop computer would no longer be used as widely as they are today. We talked about how most businesses could benefit from looking into deploying mobile computing. While there are few specific instances where a desktop computer is necessary, most will be able to function with a lower powered portable computing device, allowing employees to work on the go.

These mobile computing devices range in sizes from a 3.5 inch screen to a 9.5 inch screen. Along with the variety of screen sizes, the hardware powering these devices varies widely. Devices which less than a year old are radically slower than their newer counterparts, but are still viable for use as a mobile computing device due to the release of application receivers which connect to applications on a remote desktop. With recent releases of mobile operating systems, such as Blackberry, Android, and iOS, multiple applications have been released for each platform, allowing these mobile devices to connect to remote servers or desktop computers within a facility. These applications allow mobile devices to connect to their remote servers and run applications with a specially created touch interface that scales to the specific device, provided that the vendor developed their software this way.

What makes these mobile devices unique is their application outside of the consumer market and particularly in the long term health care industry due to the ability to run applications remotely in a hosted environment. Deploying mobile devices in the long term healthcare industry has multiple advantages over the use of traditional computers. Below is a quick list of these various advantages.

  1. Unlike a traditional computer in a fixed location, mobile computing devices can be taken anywhere that data is needed to be accessed or entered. Since application receivers on mobile devices are almost identical in functionality to those on desktop computers, employees have quick access to the remote applications they already know how to use. Using the application receivers, critical data can be accessed anywhere, from a patient’s bedside to the farthest ends of a hallway. With easy accessibility and no need for extra training, the time needed to enter information into the system is reduced. Mobile devices, while convenient and time saving, allow caregivers more time to provide better care for residents.
  2. Most newer devices have a touch screen, which, in their current form, naturally intuitive to use. While it may initially take a couple of training sessions for employees familiarize themselves with navigating the various menus, it usually does not take long before they are comfortable with touching the screen to type, select information, and move the virtual cursor.
  3. The newest versions of application receivers allow, with supported hardware, video output of the device’s screen to be displayed on a full size external monitor. Although connecting these devices to monitors and physical keyboards goes against the spirit of mobile computing, it allows them to act as thin clients when needed, making the devices more versatile by nature than most other computing devices.
  4. User data is stored securely on the remote servers to which they connect. All the same security is present when accessing information and applications through the mobile application receiver as when accessing this information on a desktop computer at the facility. Since the devices themselves do not store the data, as long as the system is configured correctly requiring a password each time a user connects, there is no potential for private data to be exposed if a device is stolen or lost.
  5. The battery life of newer devices usually ranges from eight to ten hours of usage on a Wi-Fi network. With even an hour or two less than advertisedthe battery will last longer than an entire shift. The natural evolution of hardware has increased the battery life of each successive model, which will only continue to help alleviate battery power problems for heavy users.
  6. Currently, most mobile operating systems are not vulnerable to computer malware. If an end user browses the web, the chances that they will be able to infect the device with malware are low. If something does go wrong and the device gets infected or corrupt, an easy restoration to factory settings can occur by re-flashing the ROM to the original image. This will disable the mobile device for potentially as long as an hour, but will have it back up and running by the time it’s done with the restoration.
  7. Since a nurse can always carry the device, the chances of a resident or visitor walking by and gaining access to the data is minimal. If the nurse is concerned or planning to leave the device out for a while, the press of a few buttons to logs off, shuts down, or locks up the application receiver, requiring a password to unlock the screen. This and many other settings are configurable through profiles that can be deployed to the devices from an IT department.
  8. Unlike most laptops and desktops, mobile devices use solid state storage. This reduces battery drain while preventing damage that could occur with traditional moving hard drives in a device that is always on the move. While the capacity is much smaller than a traditional laptop hard drive, the use of the application receivers for deploying applications considerably lowers the amount of required local storage.

To be fair, mobile computing devices do have a few negatives which should to be weighed against the positives before being deployed, most of which deal with the initial cost of deploying portable computing devices.

  1. Most of the mobile devices are built using consumer grade material and construction. While they may resist a few falls, when dropped enough times, they will eventually break and need to be replaced. This may not seem like a large problem, but if these devices were to be deployed in long term health care facilities, one would want them to be built sturdier. The more portable the hardware, the more likely it is to be dropped, fall or have a various accidents which may cause physical damage.
  2. There would need to be an increased number of mobile devices deployed, which would raid the initial cost. With the convenience of not having to be plugged into a power cable, battery powered devices will eventually run out of power. In order to allow for constant accessibility, a company will need to determine how many devices need to be available for each shift as well as how many devices need to be charging for the next shift. This is not an easy formula and the number will vary from facility to facility. Unlike a desktop computer which can be used between shifts, these devices will constantly be swapped in and out from charger to use, increasing the number of devices needed to be purchased and the initial deployment cost.
  3. If a wireless network is not currently deployed at a facility, then one would need to be setup and maintained, further increasing the initial cost.
  4. Mobile devices have street value, so communities must have creative policies in place to mitigate theft.

So the question remains. Should long term health care industries look at mobile computing devices for deployment in their facilities? Yes. The deployment of application receivers on these devices allows for a controlled environment where the application connects to an already vetted and trusted server allowing for the same controls and restrictions on the remote environment on the mobile device as on the desktop. As with every new tool, there are some negatives that need to be weighed against the positives. Each company will need to decide, based on their current situation, if the positives for them outweigh the negatives enough to deploy mobile devices at this time. There is not one answer for everyone as each situation is unique and will need to be thoroughly examined before a final decision is made.

Posted by: Paul E. DeArment

Operations Analyst