Creative applications of wireless technology are simplifying communication within localised communities in Europe, reports Neil Versel from MedInfo 2007 in Brisbane, Australia.

In a surgical ward at Horsens Hospital in Denmark, nobody wastes time anymore hunting for clinicians, technicians or even the cleaning crew, thanks to electronic RFID tracking of all key personnel. Pagers are a thing of the past, as are hand-written notes hung on a magnetic board. Nobody even has to inquire about whether an operating theatre is ready.

Instead, a system developed at the University of Aarhus called iHospital is all about awareness.

A group of flat-panel screens collectively known as AwareMedia posts schedules, a list of people present in each operating room, recovery room and a post-operative patient ward, as well as live video feeds from surgical theatres to show real-time status, including whether an OR is being cleaned. The displays are kept in areas off-limits to patients and visitors to guard against wandering eyes.

Location trackers are easy to follow. “It’s not a red dot, but a portrait of who’s present in the OR,” one of iHospital’s developers, Thomas Riisgaard Hansen of the university’s Department of Computer Science, explained during a presentation to MedInfo, the triennial meeting of the International Medical Informatics Association.

If a surgical complication arises, AwareMedia lets users extend the time of an OR reservation simply by dragging a finger across a touch-screen. And with built-in chat functions, it’s easy to pass non-urgent messages to someone in the OR—either on a computer or a mobile phone.

The mobile communicators everyone carries are not your average cell phone. Aarhus University long ago did away with outdated beepers in favour of cordless phones tied to land lines, and now an in-hospital wireless network has superseded that technology with IP phones.

Known as AwarePhone, the in-house system has an “intelligent” phone book that updates on each handset in sync with departmental servers. In addition to voice, SMS and IM capabilities, individual phones can show the status, location and schedule of each user, so paging of any kind often is unnecessary.

Following a three-month pilot that began in December 2005, a survey showed that solid majorities of users found that the iHospital system has led to fewer interruptions, easier work co-ordination, a better overview of each day’s tasks and less hassle locating co-workers. Indeed, the technology has proven so popular that has stayed in place long past the test period.

“This year, we are going into other parts of Horsens Hospital,” Hansen reported, and Aarhus University is looking to commercialize the system. “We’re currently trying to get some private money behind it,” Hansen said.

If the RFID tracking and IP phone communication represent steps forward for a Danish hospital, researchers in Austria are already working on the next generation of wireless healthcare technology, incorporating near-field communication, or NFC.

NFC has a shorter range than Wi-Fi or even Bluetooth, just 5 to 20 cm. But it is exactly what Austrian Research Centres, Graz, want for home monitoring of patients via mobile phone.

Today, remote home monitoring usually requires the patient to read a value off a device and then manually enter the number on a computer or a telephone keypad. “None of these methods met our requirements,” said Jürgen Morek, a biomedical researcher at the Austrian centre. “We wanted something magic.”

In a mobile phone, NFC technology can provide the functionality of a smart card, RFID and direct peer-to-peer communication such as wireless exchange of multimedia files. For this exercise, Morek and his team paired an NFC-enabled Nokia 3220 mobile phone and an off-the-shelf blood-pressure meter refitted with an NFC transceiver and some custom software.

After measuring their blood pressure with this set-up, users simply pass the phone within a few centimetres of the monitor and the medical device instantly transmits readings to a medical office via the wireless Internet.

The 14 healthcare management students who tested this technology found the NFC technology to be considerably simpler to use and learn than other data-acquisition schemes. A Java-based manual process scored high in other areas, so Morek sees potential in combining the two.

“This may be a step toward the ideal patient terminal,” he said.