How Wi-Fi and Wireless Data-Sharing Cures Patients’ Ills

Cancer Treatment Centers of America seeks to improve patients’ care and quality of life through an all-digital hospital.

There are traditional ways to justify a costly IT project—financial return on investment, regulatory compliance, increased productivity. But for Chad A. Eckes, CIO of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), determining the benefit of a technology investment starts with one simple question: Would you want it for your mom?

No need to page Dr. Freud. Eckes’s method for determining IT value comes straight from the business he serves. After CTCA chairman Richard Stephenson lost his own mother to the disease, he founded the private, for-profit chain of cancer hospitals and outpatient clinics 30 years ago, instituting what he called the “mother standard of care” to guide corporate decisions—if your mother were a patient here, what would you want available for her care?

That led Eckes’s team to roll out an all-wireless electronic health record (EHR) system across its facilities in 2008. It’s not that moms—or spouses or children or friends—battling cancer were clamoring for Wi-Fi or tablet PC-wielding oncologists, but Eckes knew the system would better enable clinicians to collaborate on data-driven treatment decisions, leading to a better patient experience and—hopefully—improved treatment results.

The first generation of wireless EHR was successful, but important data, such as radiation and surgical information, still resided outside the core digital record. So when CTCA prepared to open its fourth hospital—the Western Regional Medical Center in Goodyear, Ariz.—Eckes sought to build an all-digital hospital from the ground up.

His team collaborated with normally inflexible vendors to fully integrate radiation- and surgical-information systems into the EHR. They added a new digital registration process, allowing patients to check in on the ride from the airport so they can go straight to their rooms instead of a waiting area. The hospital uses bar codes on patient wristbands and handheld readers to streamline medication administration and specimen tracking, improving patient safety. Technology from Skylight enables patients to use their TVs to order meals, view educational materials customized to their cases or log on to the Internet. The key, says Eckes, was to throw out any traditional notions of hospital care, and build and automate closer-to-optimal business processes.

Every choice was reviewed by CTCA’s patient advocacy group. That patient input led to nixing a plan for an overhead paging system—too loud and disruptive—in favor of a solution that ran on the voice-over-IP phones.

Going all-digital has the potential to improve healthcare, but carries a new class of risks. If the network goes down, for example, what happens to that high-tech paging system that stands between life and death? To mitigate such risks, IT created five layers of redundancy “to make sure we always have the right data at the right time,” Eckes says.

The CTCA at Western Regional Medical Center project took about a year to complete, opening in December 2008. The whole hospital project came in at 25 percent below its multi-million-dollar budget. CTCA has since rolled out the new systems and processes to its other three hospitals and outpatient clinics.

Typically, IT insists on at least a 20 percent return for major projects. “We won’t get that on this one,” says Eckes. Instead, he’ll be looking for other signs of value, such as improved patient experience, quality of life and increased survival rates. “If it saves one life or improves the quality of care for one patient, the investment will be well worth it.”

Stephanie Overby is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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