Health care professionals love to vaunt the uniqueness of the medical industry, and tend to demand special, expensive treatment on that basis. Reformers tend to discount this special status. (For instance, the security problems in health care are identical to those in other industries, and are caused by the same factors of insufficient investment and training.) Yet telecommunications in hospitals and clinics really is special, and video giant Yorktel has spent the past five years adjusting to that reality. On September 5, Yorktel announced that it has enhanced its solutions for patient telemedicine with Univago HE that includes robust video connections, monitoring, and analytics as a service.
To learn how the company enhanced their video teleconferencing for healthcare, I recently talked to Peter McLain, Senior Vice President of Healthcare, and John Vitale, Senior Vice President of Project Management. They disassembled the various features of Univago that deal with hospital environments, which require reliable 24/7 connectivity, deal with a good deal of noise (both audible and electronic), and demand fast, faultless authorization to protect privacy.
- Directional audio
The triangular table-top sets, familiar to so many of us from business teleconferencing, are omni-directional in order to facilitate use by people seated around the table. In a hospital, they pick up the whirr of carts going by, the chatter in the hallway, and the beeps and gurgles of machines in the patients’ rooms themselves. So Yorktel had to substitute directional microphones.
- Camera positioning
Remote monitoring requires much more detail than talking heads in a teleconference. For instance, a remote nurse may want to check whether an IV bag is getting empty. So the person on the remote end of the video connection can direct the camera at particular points in the room and zoom in. Originally offering joystick-like controls for this purpose, Yorktel found them too confusing and cumbersome, so they created a system where a user can just double-click on her own screen to focus in on the place she indicated.
- Infrared cameras
Remote monitoring takes place continuously, including when the room is dark. The staff don’t want to wake the patient while monitoring him, so Yorktel cameras support the display of scenes scanned from infrared light. A mild alert, such as a soft buzz, lets an awake patient know that he’s being monitored, without disturbing a sleeping patient.
- Integration with dashboards
Yorktel software can be seamlessly integrated with other applications so that staff can see vital signs and other data while in a video call. The developers have made the systems adhere to relevant standards, including Skype, Web RTC, and H.323.
Conventional business teleconference systems are used for a few hours each day; hospital systems are used 24/7 and must promise long mean times between failures. Yorktel addressed this on both a hardware and a software level. In hardware, they broke down large, integrated components into modules that would be easy to replace. In software, they built a custom operating system on Unix, feeling that would offer maximum reliability. They use artificial intelligence techniques to detect whether the camera has frozen (a common failure) and reboot the system before it interferes with a video session. Components can still fail, but McLain says they can be replaced within 15 minutes instead of 3 to 6 hours.
Yorktel has hardened its authentication and authorization process to make sure that no one at random can dial into a system and see a patient in his bed. At the same time, they have integrated that process into mobile devices so the physician can check in from home or the road in case of an emergency.
The systems follow industry best practices, as specified by the ISO 27001 security standard and HIPAA. In order to expand into UK’s National Health Service and the European Union, Yorktel achieved Privacy Shield certification. They also get penetration testing from a third party expert, and incorporate anti-microbial technology into their systems. The systems are pending approval as Class 1 medical devices (the most reliable level of use) by the FDA.
Following security by design principles, Yorktel maintains no information for a patient. A physician finds the right room through an external service and calls that room. (If the patient wants to be called, he presses a button by the bedside, and a message is sent through some appropriate alert, such as a text message or a flashing screen.) No information on the traffic is preserved, and the call records have no personally identifying information.
- Specialized services
Each department in a hospital has different needs, and Yorktel has provided specific enhancements to make their systems more useful in various settings.
For instance, family visits are an excellent use case for videoconferencing. A session can be shared with family members who can’t get in to the hospital. It can also be recorded and saved by the hospital (as mentioned earlier, Yorktel does not preserve session traffic) so it can be viewed again or brought out to prove that the hospital fulfilled its responsibility. To enable family visits, Yorktel allows the staff to designate members of the call as guests. The visitors are called “guests” because they have no control over the systems, but can see and hear what goes on during the session.
For general use in medical settings, Yorktel also allows sidebar conversations. The patient can be put on hold while physicians discuss treatment candidly and privately among themselves.
Via these enhancements targeted at hospitals and clinics, Yorktel has expanded its business in health care. It started with a common application, remote monitoring in the ICU, but expanded to telestroke care, family health, behavioral health, and translational services. They also knew that hospitals already have expensive, dedicated systems for many of these tasks, and don’t want to throw them away, especially if the outcome is to be locked in yet again to some proprietary system. Hence Yorktel’s dedication to standards.
Currently, video conferencing in the hospital is so expensive that it tends to be restricted to ICUs and a few other applications. Ultimately, Yorktel’s subscription plans should offer systems at a low enough cost that they can be deployed universally in hospitals and clinics.
What can other technology developers, outside of two-way video, learn about health care from the Yorktel experience? Most of all, go into the environments where you want your systems used and get to know the needs and workflows of the participants. Systems must be flexible, because each user is different. The systems must also be secure from the ground up, robust, and conformant to standards. Cost is also an important issue in most settings, particularly given the cuts in reimbursement that are widespread.
As it designs systems to interact along standards with other vendors, Yorktel’s strength in software has grown exponentially. This parallels trends throughout many industries, from manufacturers through retailers. Marc Andreessen famously said in 2011 that software is eating the world, and along these line, many analysts say that all companies will soon be software companies–or be drowned by their more agile competition. In this sense, we can all learn from Yorktel.