Inside A Smartphone Rollout With Life and Death Consequences

At Emory University Hospital, some pagers are alive and well - and swapping them out for BlackBerries, Androids and iPhones is chock full of challenges. Here's a look inside the project and its hurdles.

Wed, September 29, 2010

CIO — Tired of carrying around pagers, doctors at Emory University hospital wanted to receive pages on their BlackBerries, iPhones and Androids. After all, the pager seemed like a relic compared to today's smartphones running cool apps and trading tons of messages over a beautiful touch screen.

Many doctors wondered why the IT department couldn't just flip a switch and send pages to cell phones. "There's lots of underlying issues that have to be worked out," says Jay Flanagan, senior manager of the messaging team at Atlanta-based Emory University.

Flanagan knows all about the pages-to-cell phone swap. He's midway of a three-year journey to retire some 6,000 pagers, mostly used by medical staff at the university's hospital. So far, 850 users are in the piloting phase of the program.

What's taking so long? Flanagan must deal with a host of issues, such as spotty carrier coverage on campus, messaging reliability and device-replacement policies. Meanwhile, many of the technical hurdles are still being worked out by the university's paging vendor, Amcom Software.

"[Smartphones] are a kind of tidal wave going across the medical community," says Chris Heim, CEO of Amcom. "We're making a substantial increased investment in Amcom Mobile Connect to the tune of a million dollars over the next couple of years."

Notoriously adverse to new technology, doctors have made an about-face when it comes to smartphones. Last year, market researcher Manhattan Research reported that 64 percent of U.S. physicians own smartphones. This figure will jump to 81 percent in 2012, predicts Manhattan. Expect to see doctors walking around with a stethoscope and smart mobile device.

Super Smart Smartphone

At Emory University hospital, doctors love their smartphones. One of the most popular iPhone apps is Epocrates (free), a mobile drug reference resource. Other medical reference apps are also now at a doctor's fingertips.

Technically speaking, smartphones have many advantages over the pager. For starters, smartphones have built-in encryption making them more secure than pagers. Another key advantage: Smartphones can both send and receive messages whereas a pager only receives messages. This means that the smartphone can let IT know if a message was received and even opened.

Also, if a smartphone is out of coverage, the message will be delivered as soon as the smartphone gains coverage. An out-of-coverage pager, on the other hand, won't receive the original message. "With pagers, it's kind of fire and forget," says Heim. "You're sending it out there and hoping it was received."

Smartphones give IT an audit trail of every outgoing message. Since hospital pages tend to be emergencies, it's critical to know if a doctor received the page or not. If not, the hospital can decide to send a message to another doctor. Additionally, patient case reviews have access to the turn of events from a messaging standpoint.

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