Charts Are Going Mobile

New nursing technology has opened endless opportunities for superior care, says Susan R. Stafford, R.N., B.S.N., M.P.A., M.B.A., Associate Chief Nursing Officer of Nursing Informatics at the Cleveland Clinic Stanley Shalom Zielony Institute for Nursing Excellence. The Zielony Institute oversees the practice and education of more than 11,000 nurses in all aspects of the Cleveland Clinic health system, including inpatient, outpatient, rehabilitation, and home care fields. “From recently introduced innovations to those that are on the horizon, enhanced technology gives nurses the ability to integrate so we can focus on delivering quality, safe, world-class care,” Stafford says.

Nurses have always been information managers at the center of a wheel, according to Patricia Abbott, Ph.D., R.N., associate professor and Co-Director of the World Health Organization/Pan American Health Organization Collaborating Center for Nursing Knowledge, Information Management, and Sharing at The Johns Hopkins University Schools of Nursing and Medicine, and chair of the 11th International Congress on Nursing Informatics in 2012. Everybody touches base with the nurse to get the latest information on a patient, says Abbot. “We’ve always had technology in our lives.”

“Our students come in with every piece of technology known to man hooked on their belt. Sometimes it’s like Jeopardy—we’ve got the answer; now what’s the question?” Abbott says. “We’ve got the technology; now show me how to apply it.” Abbott says the younger generation was raised with technology, impacting the way they communicate and conceptualize. “It’s fundamentally changing the way you think and your belief networks,” she says. “What’s happening is a lot of people are starting to look at this and see they have to adapt or leave.”
As U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki once said, “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

What follows are some of the top trends in nursing technology today, from the macro-level, government-funded changes to the little gadgets you might soon find in your hand.

Nursing informatics

Nursing informatics is a growing field that supports nursing processes through technology, including telehealth, home health, ambulatory care, long-term care, education/research, acute care, outpatient settings, software development, and work flow redesign.

“Technology has been growing and work has been done for 40 years, but people didn’t know about informatics education and it was not that widely available,” says Bonnie Westra, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., associate professor and Co-Director of the International Classification of Nursing Practice Research and Development Center for Nursing Minimum Data Set Knowledge Discovery at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. She says she’s suddenly seeing informatics classes that previously attracted three people grow into classes of 25. “Now programs are crawling out of the woodwork,” says Westra, also co-chair for the Alliance for Nursing Informatics (ANI). 

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) 2011 Nursing Informatics Workforce Survey reported that nurse informaticists play a critical role in the implementation of various clinical applications, including clinical/nursing documentation and clinical information systems, computerized practitioner order entry (CPOE), and electronic health records (EHR). The 2011 data also suggests a substantial increase in salary for nurse informaticists, which is up 17% from 2007.

Kathryn H. Bowles, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, says there are a few programs in the United States for nurses holding a master’s or Ph.D. She added the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) is doing a lot of work to promote nursing and medical education in nursing informatics, and the Technology Informatics Guiding Educational Reform (TIGER) Initiative is transforming informatics.

The TIGER Initiative aims to identify information/knowledge management best practices and effective technology to help practicing nurses and nursing students make health care safer, effective, efficient, patient-centered, timely, and equitable. “Nurses are out doing 50%–80% of all care in the globe, and many times they are in the field or in the bush,” Abbott says. “As technologies have gotten smaller, powerful, and more mobile, if we combine a huge workforce with more powerful technologies, we are enabling nurses, birth attendants, and midwives to practice better. When you do that, you improve care to an entire community.” 


Telehealth promotes lower-cost health care through mobile communication and video. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones offer video conference capabilities that allow face-to-face visits without travel costs and complications, and provide vital signs and medical history for remote diagnosis and monitoring.

“Telehealth provides specialty services on the turn of a dime without the patient being shipped off to another facility,” Westra says. Telestroke robotics is one example, where practitioners use robotic technology to manage stroke victims in remote areas. Telehealth also is being used for psychiatric consults in prisons, a less expensive and equally effective treatment option.

Abbott worked on a National Institutes of Health–funded study involving implementing telehealth services for minority patients suffering from congestive heart failure. The program placed telehealth monitors in patient homes for remote monitoring, allowing patients to Skype with nurses regarding their health concerns. “Some of my patients are geriatric African American folks with heart failure, and they don’t have transportation, and they might be in the only occupied house in an area of burned-out homes,” Abbott says. Telehealth also can be a lifeline for entire communities, scaling up knowledge levels of community health workers in low-resource areas without a formally trained nurse on site.

“We know there are not enough doctors to go around, and also not enough nurses,” Abbott says. “In reality, when you start looking at the large provider groups that exist around the world, you look at ways you can reach and teach. Many of these folks, both nationally and internationally, cannot travel to the bricks and mortar model of a school to get additional training.”

Mobile technology

Gartner Inc., a Connecticut-based information technology research and advisory company, says mobile health, or mHealth, is one of the top 10 consumer mobile applications for 2012. According to the 2009 American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) Membership Survey, 60% of respondents indicated they used a PDA or smartphone in clinical practice. Applications do not require a large, up-front investment and are simple to download. Health diaries, medication reminders, exercise tips, and applications to track food intake, pain levels, and sleeping habits are helping people monitor their own health.

Cell phones facilitating mHealth are proving to be powerful tools in the Latino and African American communities, particularly with illegal aliens afraid to participate in a formal health care system. Abbott says she’s involved in a movement surrounding texting for health, in which nurses reach out to minority populations with health tips and reminders concerning maternal health, HIV/AIDS, and drug addiction. The National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition text4baby’s Hispanic Outreach program, for example, supports mothers by providing 140 characters of health information and resources to a pregnant woman’s cell phone.

“They don’t have home phones—a lot don’t even have a home—but they have a cell phone,” Abbott says. “We are getting messages to them about appointments and medication refills. We let them text in questions or problems they have because they won’t come to the clinic. It’s a way to reach people through something so many people have these days.”

Over the past two years, the University of San Diego’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science has required an iPod Touch for incoming RN pre-licensure students. Instead of carrying multiple books to clinical sites, the iTouch provides clinical reference tools and pharmacology manuals with the tap of a finger.

“They find that having those clinical reference tools available to them very quickly while seeing patients is easier than having to look something up in a book,” says Karen Macauley, D.N.P., F.N.P.-B.C., Director of the Simulation and Standardized Patient Nursing Laboratory and clinical associate professor. The school developed an nTrack application for the iTouch with Skyscape Medical to help students document clinical experiences in hospital sites. Once they graduate, students can compile the data into an e-portfolio for potential employers.

“We decided to require it because it forces students to really embrace technology,” Macauley says. “Once they get into the hospital sites, you’re really looking at the best evidence-based practice and how to apply it to their clinical practice. Without having something at their fingertips to look at right away, they are at a loss.”

Another mobile tool growing in popularity is the electronic tablet. “The whole iPad application, how it will affect patient teaching and patient interaction, will be huge,” Westra says.
Abbott says mobile technology is especially important for nurses, who are incredibly mobile themselves. “We are running from bed to bed to bed, from unit to unit to unit, from clinic to clinic to clinic, from house to house to house,” Abbott says. “Records never seem to go with us, which has caused a lot of errors, redundancy, and wasted effort. Now when you put mobile technology in a nurse’s hand or in her pocket, it allows her to do her job, help her patient, right at the patient’s side instead of running back to the nurses’ station and grabbing a chart or looking on a computer.”

Mobile technology can also be a lifeline for remote nurses in “frontier environments” with less than seven people per square mile, Abbott says. A mini clinic with connectivity enables nurses to provide more services, find the help they need when they need it, and quickly connect through Skype with a specialist to find an answer.

Electronic health records

The federal government set aside $27 billion for an incentive program, as part of the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, to encourage hospitals and providers to adopt electronic health records systems (EHR). Policymakers continue to work toward establishing a Nationwide Healthcare Information Network to standardize EHRs, which would provide a seamless exchange of data among physicians, hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies, and other health care organizations.

At the Cleveland Clinic, electronic documentation includes computerized provider order entry (CPOE), nursing care documentation, medication dispensing and administration, and results reporting. The technology improves access to patient information at the point of care and enhances the ability to benchmark, monitor, audit, and report quality measures while offering quality data to support nursing-led research.

The Cleveland Clinic has been implementing EHR technology in stages over the past six years. The most recent implementation was the ICU nursing documentation with device integration. With this implementation, vital signs go directly from the cardiac monitor at the bedside into the EHR.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Bowles’ is examining decision making supported by information technology to improve care for older adults. Her ongoing study, funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research, focuses on the development of decision support for hospital discharge referral decisions. Using an electronic record, patients are asked a series of questions, ranging from their ability to walk to whether they have a caregiver available at home.  Through statistical analysis of the answers and information already contained in the EHR, clinicians can make an informed decision regarding a patient’s needs. “Decision support, in general, is a new phenomenon,” Bowles says. “As we start using electronic records, more and more patient data will be available electronically and more developed to remind clinicians of the right thing to do.”

In May 2010, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) estimated an additional 50,000 health information technology workers will be needed over the next five years to satisfy meaningful use criteria. Abbott is the principal investigator on a HITECH grant to create a six-month, non-degree program for the unemployed to be qualified to build, upgrade, and maintain the implementation of health information technology programs, including EHR systems, at hospitals and clinics.


Centralized monitoring of intensive care units in remote areas is the health care delivery of the future. FHN Memorial Hospital in Freeport, Illinois, is collaborating with the University of Wisconsin e-Care team of intensivist physicians and critical care nurses in Madison, Wisconsin, on eICU care. Small microphones and cameras in each ICU patient room provide a constant link to the e-Care team at UW Hospital. Patient vital information, including heart rate, blood pressure, medications, and test results, are monitored in the FHN ICU and shared in real time with the e-Care team.

If a patient’s condition suddenly changes, the FHN physician and nurses can touch a button and activate a two-way visual and audio link for an immediate consultation with e-Care specialists.

Social media

The Mayo Clinic health guide used to be the go-to guide at everyone’s bedside. But the introduction of social media has both patients and caregivers logging onto sites like WebMD and Patients Like Me for health information, advice, and forums to share experiences.

A 2008 Edelman Health Engagement Barometer found the Internet has become the “new second opinion.” Patients with a diagnosis are barely out of the exam room door before typing status updates on their smartphones and searching for support groups via social media.

Many nurses have taken to Facebook and Twitter to promote accurate medical information to help the general population make healthy lifestyle choices, as well as to promote their profession.

Virtual reality simulations

Imagine being in the operating room and making a devastating decision that risks the life of a patient. Now imagine being given a do-over and figuring out the best way to proceed.

Such is the scenario in Second Life, a 3D virtual world becoming popular in nursing education. Westra says universities are buying islands and creating communities in which students develop avatars and run through different scenarios to see the consequences of their decisions. She’s even seen a virtual theater set up where students in their avatar personas can “attend” an author interview on a virtual theater stage. “It’s a chance to have people practice skills and make decisions and study consequences and not kill patients,” Westra says.

Radio frequency identification

Radio frequency identification (RFID) has been traditionally used for tagging equipment, but it’s starting to replace bar coding for patient identification. Westra says she is seeing RFID in nurseries to prevent kidnappings and tagging breast milk to ensure it goes to the right baby. Alzheimer’s units are using it as well to monitor patients prone to wandering.

Experimentally, it also is showing up in operating room equipment. A wand with an RFID reader is replacing X-rays to pick up any sponges or instruments left in patients before they are sewn up. Another experimental use is with intubating patients to check placement rather than using X-ray.

Judy Murphy, R.N., F.A.C.M.I., F.H.I.M.S.S., Vice President of Information Technology for Aurora Health Care in Wisconsin and co-chair of ANI, says RFID is a lot like Global Positioning System (GPS), but added there isn’t a lot of penetration of the technology at this point due to the expense. But it may be something more institutions turn to down the road.

Smart pumps

Almost every IV these days is connected to a smart pump integrated with a computer that handles drug infusion calculating. Computerized infusion pumps with dose error reduction systems were developed to alert nurses if a programmed fusion dosage exceeds the hospital’s best practice guidelines.

Some organizations are integrating the pumps with EHRs, allowing physicians to enter information electronically and pass it along via computer to the pump, Murphy says.
Cleveland Clinic is rolling out new IV digital smart pumps designed specifically for high-volume medication infusions. This imitation will be completed and fully implemented in 2012. The Clinic will also be using new smart syringe pumps and smart pain pumps.

Wireless voice-over-IP phones

Through wireless voice-over-IP phones—voice carried over Internet protocol networks—nurses can be more easily reached when they are caring for patients in various rooms throughout a unit. This technology eliminates the need for unit secretaries to make announcements over a loudspeaker. The phone, according to the Cleveland Clinic, helps with noise control, improves efficiency in communication between staff and patients, and streamlines processes.

Electronic patient tracking boards

Similar to wireless voice-over-IP phones, electronic patient tracking boards facilitate ease of communication and coordination of patient care with a quick status display of current activity on a unit. A combination of wireless communication, barcode, and Internet technology, electronic patient tracking boards are replacing white boards in many settings.

Cleveland Clinic first used patient tracking systems in the emergency department and operating room areas. In 2010 the hospital system rolled out a new patient tracking board system to all of the main campus inpatient units.

Electronic patient tracking boards, according to Stafford, decrease the need for phone calls or meetings to find information about patients as they are coming and going. The systems give nursing units a one-stop shop for critical information on patients. A nurse, for example, can easily see if patients are at risk of falling or need extra precautions in isolation.

Point-of-care technology

Point-of-care technology offers access to patient records, labs, medication information, and even second opinions, all from the patient’s bedside. A wireless network and computer allow nurses to access and receive a wide array of information without leaving the patient’s side.

Wireless point-of-care glucometers, for example, submit blood glucose results to the electronic medical record as soon as the clinician checks a patient’s blood sugar level. This technology offers completed reporting and documentation immediately upon the docking of the wireless device into its cradle. The information transaction can also be sent into the electronic medical record.

Workstations on wheels are also used for bedside and point-of-care documentation and information retrieval. Cleveland Clinic has one workstation on wheels for each caregiver working a shift on a nursing unit, providing instant access to a patient’s medical records at the bedside. The Cleveland Clinic finds the system helps nurses confirm all patient information is accurate, including medical history and medications, and improves patient safety for medication administration.

Web-based self-scheduling

Cleveland Clinic is also rolling out a new Web-based self-scheduling platform for all caregivers. The system offers nursing caregivers convenience and flexibility through the ability to select shifts based on competencies. Nurse managers can now spend less time filling shifts and making phone calls. This technology is relatively new and still uncommon among most health systems, but it is a growing trend and anticipated to be coming to more health systems over the next few years.

“We look at the opportunities that are possible because of technological advancements,” Stafford says. “The common thread is that many of these advancements were developed to help nurses give the patient a positive experience. An enhanced patient experience is very valuable, creating a healing environment that contributes to overall positive patient outcomes.”

While all of this technology is meant to create efficiencies, improve outcomes, and ease the workload, Macauley says it all comes down to how medical professionals communicate with each other. The future of medical technology lies within professionals and students who will embrace it and create a system that lowers health care costs by reducing redundancy.

“Those people who leave the program in technology are thinking out of the box on using mobile devices and mobile technology and looking at ways of being innovative in using technology we’re all exposed to,” Macauley says.