Dr. John Halamka: Wearable Computing Has Saved Lives

John D. Halamka is a rare combination. He’s a trained medical doctor. And he’s also CTO of a major medical center, the Boston-based Beth Israel Deacon Medical Center (BIDMC), the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

As such, Halamka said he spends a good amount of his time separating the hype about mobile and cloud in healthcare from the reality.

To provide some idea of the scale of the computing environments used in the healthcare industry, at BIDMC, there are 22,000 network connections, 8,000 managed desktops, 4,000 iPhones, 2,000 iPads, 2,000 Android devices, two BlackBerries, and one Windows phone (just for testing).

The ideal mobile device, said Halamka, weighs less than 1 pound, can survive one full working shift on a battery charge, is disinfectable, and fits in a white coat pocket.

BIDMC has been making progress in embracing mobile, with Electronic Medication Administration Records, which use RFID, bar codes, or other technologies to automatically document the administration of medication into certified electronic health records. Eighty percent of its websites and directories are mobile-friendly. And BIDMC offers a free website called PatientSite, which lets customers manage their healthcare any time of day or night, whether it's from a smartphone, tablet, or home computer.

BIDMC has embraced wearable computing, in the form of Google Glass, Thalmic Labs’ MYO gesture-control armband, and Meta Spaceglasses. Spaceglasses offer an augmented virtual reality approach, said Halamka.

Heads-up displays, for example, can provide convenient, always-on access to surgeons and other media professionals. Wearable computing allows medical personnel to collaborate with other medical personnel through voice recognition. Hands-free displays help reduce the risk of spreading infections by constantly touching their devices.

Wearable computing has saved lives at BIDMC. Halamka shared the story of an unidentified man who came in through the emergency room. The man’s wife showed up a few minutes later and was able to tell hospital personnel his identity, resulting in allergy information showing up on a doctor’s Google Glass device seconds before he was about to administer a medication that the man had a life-threatening allery to.

BIDMC uses cloud-hosted electronic health records and decision support services. Although Halamka defines cloud computing as "your mess, outsourced to someone else, he said "that there are companies that can do it well. It's cost-effective."

Medical applications have the added complication of being regulated by federal and state laws. Healthcare apps also have reliability, stability, and agility issues.

Halamka said BIDMAC has made major advances in using cloud computing and wearable computing, but there remain many other possibilities for using mobile and cloud computing to advance medical care.

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