Innovation to Go

Sometimes, it's the people who come late to a technology that push the envelope. Here's how firefighters and doctors learned to love their PDAs and became the apostles of the mobile economy.

Fire Battalion Chief Richard Price had a problem. How could his firefighters in San Mateo County, California get access to information that would help them save lives and attack fires more efficiently?

"Ever try to find an address while you're driving? Well, think about finding a fire when you're going 70 MPH in a $750,000 fire truck," says Price, 39.

That may seem like one of the more mundane concerns of a battalion chief, but not when you consider that a house fire can escalate from a smoke-filled room to a dangerous three-alarm blaze in a matter of minutes. Now consider Price's elegant solution: wireless handheld devices -- everything from sturdy, functional RIM pagers to sleek, chrome Compaq iPaqs. By thinking digital, Price has given his firefighters instant, untethered access to the county's fire dispatch database, a nerve center once accessible only to department dispatchers. Now San Mateo's bravest simply scribble and click on their Palms or thumb-type on their RIM pagers to tap into FireDispatch.com.

With the handhelds, the firefighters "have a window into everything that's happening with fire in the county," Price says. Plus, they can input real-time information of their own -- which is a major factor in getting them enthused about using the devices, he adds.

Although personal use was initially touted as the future of the handheld economy, business applications soon emerged as the real insurgents. But who'd have thought that notorious information technophobes such as firefighters and medical professionals would become the innovators in the market? Sometimes, it's the people who come late to a technology that wind up pushing the envelope.

Dr. Redmond P. Burke, 42, who is the chief of cardiovascular surgery at Miami Children's Hospital, used to dread meeting parents in the hallways. "They'd ask about their babies, and if I'd been in surgery with another baby for six hours, I'd have to give an awkward guess as to how the child was doing," he says. "Now I just look at my Palm."

Burke's passion for his Palm goes far beyond hallway chats. He came to Miami Children's Hospital six years ago believing that the more information he could access at a patient's bedside, the better he could care for his patients. But back then (and still today in many hospitals), critical patient data was stored on index cards that were kept at the nurses' station -- and it was usually handwritten in illegible doctor's scrawl. The old method left plenty of room for error. Plus, there was no easily accessible central database of patient information.

That's what led Burke to team up with biomedical engineer Jeffrey White, 29, to create an electronic cache of more than 2,000 infant-patient records, with dozens of vital-statistics entries for each baby. It was a good start: The database gave them a ton of information to work with, and it got the rest of the medical staff used to dealing with database technology. But to really make the system work, Burke and White knew that they needed to uncouple the data from the computers. "There was still a gap between a patient's bedside and the nurse's workstation," Burke says. "It was infuriating to me that UPS or FedEx could keep better track of a parcel than we could of a baby."

So about a year ago, White began working on a Palm OS interface. At the same time, he included the nurses in marathon sessions about what parts of the database really needed to be accessed from the handhelds. "I respected the nurses' need to test the system," Burke says. It was also a crucial step toward shifting the mind-set of the medical staff from paper to Palm.

Now doctors and nurses enter their patients' vital stats and other information several times a day on their PDAs; the data is then fed back into the central database. The result: a robust, real-time view of how each baby is doing, and fewer dumb mistakes made because someone misread a doctor's lousy handwriting.

Yet the impact of going mobile has been even more profound than that, Burke says. "A good doctor touches his patients every day. It's how you convey that you care. Having data in the palm of my hand means that I can spend more time with my patients."

Contact Dr. Redmond Burke (redmond111@aol.com) or Richard Price (richp@scfa.dst.ca.us) by email.

Sidebar: Do It by Hand

Five Ways to Get Your Workers to Go Mobile

1. Keep it simple. Loading an application with multiple menus and screens will confuse people. Then they won't use the thing, destroying the reason you started going handheld in the first place. So don't try to make your entire database accessible -- only the most important information. For PDAs, use simple icons. If you're using phones or pagers, limit the number of steps per task to two or three, if not fewer.

2. Do it yourself. Writing your own code or creating your own mobile-Internet interface may seem extreme, but in the end, it should save money. You know better than anyone else what you want to squeeze out of your database. At the very least, make certain you can personalize off-the-shelf applications.

3. Offer a choice. Don't force one single device on your workers. Let them choose their own devices -- it will likely increase their use of the systems. And in the long run, devices come and go, so being married to one could make your whole system obsolete.

4. Write it down. Empowering workers to put data into the system can be as important as getting data out of it. It gets people psyched about using the technology. Plus, all new data goes digital immediately.

5. Listen up. Your employees are your greatest source of information about the "must haves" that they want on their devices. Including them in the process will get you the most usable mobile application and will cut down on the time it takes to sell the idea to the entire workforce.

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