Voalte Creates Sparks @ HIMSS2009

Posted by: Kenny Schiff on April 9, 2009

After a very exhausting quick two day run through HIMSS2009 in Chicago, my colleague Bill McKenna asked me whether I had any takeaways. If I was true to form, Bill would have gotten a very quick read from me, but as we finished up lunch, I didn’t really have a fast or easy answer. Now riding the plane back to New York, I take a moment to make some commentary.

Bill and I had a bit of hit list at HIMSS and we worked to catch up with vendors who work in our areas of focus: voice communications, alarm management, and workflow automation. And while we saw continued evolution from many, including the newly launched Ascom d62 handsets, the Motorola EWP2000 (and its Vocera M1000 derivative), and interesting new personal location tag (in an ID badge form factor) from Centrak, I ultimately was most intrigued by the Tampa Bay area startup, Voalte.

An iPhone App Suite Built Around Alarm Notification
Dressed in hot pink scrub pants, Voalte (pronounced “volt”) showed off their iPhone application suite (including server side components and hooks to Emergin’s middleware engine) for presenting and interacting with alarm notifications (and other text-based messaging), along with SIP-based telephony integration to complete the workflow loop between care givers (via voice) and clinical alerts (and other alarms). In addition to the iPhone, Voalte can be deployed on the iPod Touch (without voice for now). For now the suite is Apple-centric but plans are in the works for other platforms.

Here in front of all to see was a vision of a smart focused healthcare messaging application running on a device with elegant human factors design. This was not a brick you carried on your hip, or a clumsy interface driven application. Rather the experience of picking up this device and seeing and interacting with a nursecall alert or lab data had an organic feel that gave me a moment for pause.

Granted Voalte can take no credit for Apple’s refined hardware and interface design, but they were smart enough to recognize that this would be a great jumping off point for a different approach to Point-of-Care communications. And while there are many hurdles for a consumer-oriented device like the iPhone (or Android, RIM, or Palm) in the healthcare enterprise, I can’t help but smile at this disruption at work.

Rebalancing the Messaging Equation
Alarm integration into handsets and PDAs is not new in healthcare, and Ascom, Cisco, Vocera and Polycom all manufacture highly evolved solutions that are widely used in the healthcare market. Ascom’s solution always treated messaging as a natural extension of their handset with its tight integration to their Unite messaging platform. Vocera’s badge and application design is highly attentive to the user experience, a solution that when it’s properly tuned is organic and transparent, allowing the user to work without thinking about the device. But where Vocera’s real center is the “voice” (hence the name), with messaging taking a back seat, Voalte potentially rebalances the equation.

As Trey Lauderdale (Voalte’s Vice President of Innovation) was quick to point out, Voalte is still early in their startup journey. If you wanted to, you couldn’t just pick up and buy iPhones with Voalte apps running on them for your clinicians tomorrow. Trey doesn’t see a final product until end of 2009 at earliest.

What It Will Take to Make this Ready
There are many practical and tactical issues that implementing a Voalte solution will surface when customers try to move this into production: workflow engineering and design, asset management, survivability, wireless network readiness, legacy system integration (including TDM telephony), and wireless (and application) security.

One also wonders how enterprises will manage the control of software distribution to the traditional (if you can call it that) iPhone user – the Physician. Often they aren’t hospital employees and how do you get their phones to get the latest client application. Finally, there is the traversal issue that the F/MC (fixed mobile convergence) vendors like DiVitas are trying to solve. What an iPhone suggests to the user is that the device can be used within the physical bounds of the enterprise (using WiFi), but also outside using 3G. Healthcare organizations considering this type of solution will grapple with technical challenges of session persistence, but also the operational and regulatory considerations of sending clinical alerts over a carrier network.

And of course, other more mundane issues like device cost, carrier costs (assuming the iPhone is used), battery life, battery replacement (not especially self-service oriented), group charging solutions (wall mounted rack chargers), and host of other aspects of the healthcare user experience that are not baked yet into the iPhone (and hence Voalte).

Missing pieces aside, Voalte’s very being will likely stimulate the creative juices of healthcare users looking for better ways to communicate and respond to their patients. I look forward to seeing how this further evolves.

Kenny Schiff (www.tpchealthcare.com) is founder and President of TPC Healthcare, a specialty provider of point-of-care communication technologies, such as wireless voice, alarm notification, and workflow automation, to hospitals and healthcare organizations.

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