Are hospitals in danger of becoming over-reliant on smartphones?

While society and the wider economy adopted smartphone apps, new communications technologies and Cloud-based software solutions years ago, hospitals have tended to lag behind. Whatever the reasons for this, one thing is for sure: app-based communications solutions aimed at the public health sector have well and truly arrived.

This is of course a great thing for hospitals and the people who work in them. New healthcare-focused communications apps allow staff to communicate quicker and easier, share media, and choose between instant messaging and voice or video calling. This breaks down barriers to communication and saves clinicians precious time that they can dedicate to patient care.

However, there is a danger in rushing headlong into adopting apps and basing all hospital communications on smartphones. Hospitals are 24/7, 365 days-a-year operations, with large numbers of critically ill people to care for. It’s no exaggeration to say that a communications breakdown due to equipment failure or service interruption could be very serious, leading at best to a significant slowdown and, at worse, putting lives at risk.

It’s also fair to say, then, that smartphones and apps aren’t without their flaws. Your average smartphone has a relatively short battery life, and takes a while to charge. In a bring your own device scenario, a hospital’s chosen apps could be running on a myriad of devices and operating systems. The potential for bugs and security breaches is rather large. Ordinary smartphones can also be broken easily. Hospitals are tough environments for consumer tech.

And what about the supporting infrastructure? Many hospitals have incomplete mobile data coverage inside their buildings, and Wi-Fi networks are far from bullet-proof. If your apps are cloud-based, as the vast majority are, you’re also reliant on your site’s broadband connection working faultlessly 24/7, 365 days a year. That also applies to the servers your apps are hosted on and any intermediary systems like CDNs.

There’s clearly an issue here. There have always been, on occasion, major outages of popular online services like Twitter and WhatsApp. Sometimes entire swathes of the internet have been taken offline. Hospitals are also likely to be busiest during times of local or national emergency; emergencies which could damage local comms infrastructure. Mobile networks are also prone to be overwhelmed by traffic. There are cyber-attacks to consider, too.

So, we can see that app-based communication has inherent vulnerabilities. Are we advocating to avoid using them altogether? Absolutely not. The vast majority of the time, your apps will be up and running and delivering a great bonus to efficiency and productivity. Instead, there are ways of mitigating these vulnerabilities, ensuring the hospital as a whole has a resilient communication system with backup options and a functionally independent, but integrated, critical communications component to ensure the most urgent messages are always delivered.

Firstly, let’s briefly talk about the smartphones themselves. While making use of the personal devices is an easy option, it’s also a source of vulnerability. Providing at least some key personnel with enterprise phones provides a number of advantages. Firstly, you have uniformity of software and operating systems for greater stability. Secondly, the devices are much more optimised for a work environment: they’re tougher and feature swappable batteries to keep the devices running for much longer.

Secondly, the internet connection. The cloud brings clear advantages, but if you lose connection, you lose service. What if you could use your apps entirely over LAN, either all the time or as a backup when your external connection is interrupted? That puts the hospital firmly in control of its own comms, using its own Wi-Fi network and servers to facilitate great communications.

Thirdly, we still need some pagers. Simply put, in times of crisis or for the highest priority messages, like cardiac arrest calls, pagers are super reliable. They use a robust local transmitter that guarantees full site coverage, and as devices, they have long battery lives and are impossible to ignore. We’re unlikely to see a technology that can beat the sheer stability of paging in the near future. But they can, and should, co-exist with smartphones.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the apps were integrated with the hospital’s wider communications system - even with pagers? With Multitone i-Message, this is possible. Even if someone only carries a pager, using our Appear app you can still send them a message. This also means you can broadcast messages to large numbers of people via i-Message regardless of what devices they carry. i-Message is available on-site, in the cloud, or as a hybrid solution. We can also offer solutions to make staff safer and to mobilise staff in a major incident.

To learn more about Multitone’s solutions for hospitals and the wider healthcare sector, visit our website and get in touch.

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