Home health care goes mobile

The Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada (VON) is planning to use IT to change the way it delivers home and community health care to its clients.

For thousands of front-line VON care providers, scheduling house calls, communicating with local VON branches, and accessing electronic patient information is a time-consuming and slow ordeal.

“A key area for our sector is planning and scheduling,” Francois Couillard, chief operating officer at VON, said. “We’ve got thousands of staff members driving hundreds of kilometres every week and our ability to track and communicate with them is crucial. Right now, we’re relying on antiquated technologies.”

Instead of sending off an e-mail to a health-care worker on the road, Couillard said, staff members might receive their information a few days ahead of time via fax. This can lead to outdated information and fails to provide front-line workers an effective way to communicate back to local branches.

The non-profit health firm’s ultimate goal is to roll out an integrated information management system that staff can connect to via their mobile phones. Couillard said this type of project has become increasingly popular at the hospital level, especially dealing with physician availability.

“A handheld device for everybody on the road is the vision,” he said. “This will connect with a planning and scheduling system that’s very precise and not paper-based. We’re going to need to make changes on-the-fly, based on the availability of our staff or changes in demand from our clients.”

Field workers might also be able to take digital pictures on-site and send them back to the office for clinical support from local experts, he added.

To pull all of this off, VON has entered into a two-year, $10-million deal with IBM Canada Ltd. The company will help develop the integrated management system and will also work to connect it with VON’s human resources, talent management, finance and accounting departments.

Barry Burk, general manager of the health-care market at IBM Canada, said that his company has learned a lot about dealing with mobile workers through its work with delivery and courier organizations.

“When trying to deliver health care in a smarter way, we realize that you need to look at enabling staff at the point-of-care,” he said. “Once you’ve got everything instrumented and you’re getting information fed directly back from the patient and back to VON employees, than you’ve got data you can really start to use.”

And according to Couillard, that means the ability for staff to interconnect with provincial health care records in the field. VON hopes more real-time mobile communication will ultimately lead to better integration of home and community care into other parts of the health care system.

“It will get the communication going in both ways,” he said. Provincial authorities will be able to send information about VON clients and the kind of care plans they require, while VON will be able to provide updates and other information back to the province.

For example, the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres (OACCAC) wants to ensure that VON clients are getting continuity in the care they receive. “Patients don’t like to have a different nurse coming in every day to see them, so the more continuity we can provide, the better,” Couillard said. “With the new system, we’ll be able to report that back in an efficient manner.”

Currently, VON is in the process of rolling out about 300 handhelds to staff this year, with another 400 handhelds expected by next year. During this time, IBM will implement application management of back-office functions, new hardware, portal software, and other services to support the new wireless handheld devices.

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