Improved communications at the point of care has significant impact on productivity, patient safety, and both staff and patient satisfaction. It's a wonder that more hospitals haven't implemented some sort of wireless communications system. Point of care communications is more than carrying a cordless phone; integration with nurse call systems and medical device alarm notification also represent major communications issues for caregivers. To a lesser extent, results reporting from diagnostic tests are also beneficial. The wrinkle here is how you tie together all the different sources of communications input: phones, pages, nurse call, medical devices, and information systems.

A while back I was introduced to Ascom by Tom McKearney, VP of Marketing and Bus Dev. Ascom makes handsets that are well suited for bedside use - they are ruggedized for the inevitable drops, and more importantly are water resistant so they can be cleaned with liquid disinfectants. Their phone systems are based on the 1920-1930 MHz ANSI TIA/EIA-662 Personal Wireless Telephony standard, the DECT standard or 802.11b/g wireless VoIP standards.

Ascom is a 50 year old Swiss company focused on the security and wireless communications markets. They are at $250 million in revenue and spent $31 million on R&D last year. They've been in the US for more than 5 years; in the last 3 years they have focused on the health care market. They have about 400 hospital installations in the US.

What sets Ascom apart is the suite of integration products and workflow support for communications at the point of care that goes beyond wireless voice communications. Called the UNITE Messaging Suite, includes an HL7 interface for results reporting and orders; a nurse call interface; building management systems (BMS) integration; fire, security and infant abduction systems interfaces; integration with wireless paging systems (both internal and external carrier systems) and more. The UNITE system is deployed as a group of network appliances (Linux based). There is even a workflow module that manages nurse to patient assignments.

There are numerous ways to tackle the point of care workflow automation challenge. Nurse call system vendors have solutions, as do middleware vendors. Medical device vendors are also starting to offer their own nurse-carried alarm notification devices. This market has quite a ways to go before a mature full feature set is available. Some of the missing pieces include primary alarm notification for medical devices and what to do with vendor and device specific central stations (a la Cardiopulmonary Corp.). Regardless, there is real value to be gained by hospitals who adopt now. Any hospital looking to address point of care communications or workflow should do a thorough needs assessment and system design that all impacted systems over a minimum 5 year roadmap.