by Michael Ybarra

In Search of an Android Mobile Strategy

Dec 12, 20113 mins
Healthcare IndustryHIPAAMicrosoft Office

Challenged by HIPAA privacy requirements and mobile-device limitations, United Orthopedic looks for a device- and hardware-independent mobile strategy

Medical technology moves at warp speed, and trying to wring back-office benefits from the latest gadgets can be tricky in a field governed by strict privacy regulations.

Consider United Orthopedic Group, a holding company whose 25 subsidiaries make braces and medical devices for virtually every part of the body, from head to toe. Patient health information (PHI) needs to be transmitted to the main office, but its clinicians work remotely in 22 states. CIO James Clent says mobile devices have been challenging to deploy because of HIPAA privacy requirements, not to mention the limitations of various devices.

Ultimately Clent, like many CIOs, prefers a device- and hardware-independent platform. Last year the company tested an Android-based smartphone strategy it hoped would be a speedy alternative to evenings spent faxing hundreds of pages of patient information to the main office. Clent felt Android would provide a better level of security, “and you don’t completely hang your success on a single vendor. That gives me peace of mind. I don’t have to worry about every upgrade from a single vendor,” he says.

During the pilot, the phones were used to scan billing documents, which were encrypted and transferred to the company’s database without staying on the mobile devices. Clent estimated the equipment would pay for itself in nine months and collection speed would improve nearly 10 percent. It didn’t work.

As it turned out, there’s a trade-off between upload speed and image quality. With a lapse of almost a minute between scans, there was always the chance a transmission would fail and confidential documents would remain stuck on the device. The issue was fixable on 4G networks but not on 3G ones, which made the project impractical. “We absolutely do not want PHI stored on a phone, nor do we want to have the possibility of failed transmissions,” Clent says.

Clent has moved on and recently launched a pilot program to run VMware View to allow remote desktop access on iPads and Android tablets. “The beauty of this is that no PHI or any other data is ever stored on the device itself, while allowing full access to applications and data within the enterprise firewall,” he says.

The new pilot does not solve the faxing issue, but does streamline remote workflow by safely transmitting clinical notes and enabling real-time appointment management, while GPS allows route planning and optimization. “The business benefit is immediate access to data and eliminating unneeded travel,” Clent says.

The fact that United’s tablet pilot supports both Android and Apple devices underscores a trend toward flexibility among CIOs and Android’s rising dominance in the mobile market. In 2011, for example, a Forrester Research survey found that the percentage of enterprises supporting Android devices had almost doubled from the previous year, hitting 28 percent, up from 16 percent.

“Android’s made a pretty big jump,” says Forrester Research Principal Analyst Michele Pelino. “The openness of the Android platform is appealing to users. With closed environments, you have to go through their store and follow their requirements. Many organizations want the flexibility to use different devices and platforms. One platform isn’t a reality in many organizations these days.”

Michael Ybarra is a freelance writer based in California.