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Health

UPMC testing 'smart rooms' to streamline care

Luis Fábregas
| Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010

Like most hospital rooms, this one has a bed with white sheets, a tray table and a nurse call button.

But the new "smart room" under development at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center could well be the patient room of the future.

Its focal point is a 32-inch flat screen monitor, which faces the bed. Using a remote control, patients can check e-mail, order a blanket or get details about upcoming tests. When hospital workers enter patients' rooms, the screen flashes their names and titles, thanks to an ultrasound tag they wear at all times.

"We're personalizing their experience," said Toni Morrison, a registered nurse who's helping to design these high-tech quarters for SmartRoom, a UPMC-owned, for-profit enterprise that's partly funded by computer giant IBM.

UPMC is testing the smart rooms in a 24-bed transplant unit at UPMC Montefiore in Oakland. The rooms have been in development for three years, with an earlier version tested at UPMC Shadyside. Morrison and a team of computer experts are ironing out kinks in mock rooms set up in an empty wing at the former South Side Hospital.

Its creators are touting a second touchscreen unit in the patient's room that gives physicians and nurses real-time information about the patient, such as allergies or lab work results. Within seconds, a nurse can call up the tasks to be done at that moment -- whether giving medication or taking the patient out for an X-ray.

The system allows doctors, nurses and aides to chart what they've done before they leave the room. They can track if the patient went to the bathroom or took a bath. Basic vitals like temperature and blood pressure readings automatically pop on the screen, on their way to the patient's electronic medical record.

The smart room, which has been designed to be a commercial product, has attracted attention from more than a dozen hospitals from as far as Singapore, said David T. Sharbaugh, SmartRoom's president and founder. UPMC would not say how much money it expects to make from the venture. IBM is handling all aspects of the sales.

UPMC is not disclosing how much it is spending to create the smart room. IBM's cost, also undisclosed, comes from a $50 million co-development fund it created in 2005 with UPMC.

The system frees nurses from mundane tasks so they have time for the more critical part of their job, such as analyzing a patient and making recommendations about their care, Sharbaugh said.

"We tell the nurses we're not trying to make them robots," he said. "We're just trying to make the easy things easier."

One of the smart room's most impressive parts is outside it -- a massive flat screen monitor at nurses' stations that replaces dry boards that are typically filled with scribbled notes. The smart room creators refer to this component as a dashboard, and it is controlled by a unit secretary.

To protect their privacy, patients are identified on the screen by their initials, but doctors quickly know which nurse in caring for the patient, or if the patient has any special considerations, such as infections or allergies, said Christine Henderson, director of software development.

"It's easy to read, it looks professional, and it's not a dry board," she said. "You're going to see their presence explode."

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