Panasonic System Solutions Health Facility Computer

Keeping Health Facilities Humming

"We work with industries where data are mission-critical, and thus the hardware has to be mission-critical."

Editor's note: Building a mobile computer for health care involved totally sealing it and adding features such as a fingerprint reader for biometric sign-in, an integrated camera, and a built-in bar code scanner for scanning patients' wrist bands and medicines, said Greg Davidson, Senior Business Development Manager for Health Care for Panasonic Computer Solutions Company (Secaucus, N.J.). He talked about creating computers for these and other challenging environments during a Dec. 1 conversation with OH&S Editor Jerry Laws. Excerpts from the conversation follow:

Who initially developed this product category and why?

Greg Davidson: Panasonic has been making rugged mobile devices since 1993. We noticed a segment of the market that wasn't being addressed: the military, police, and fire departments worked in areas and environments that did not mesh with the type of consumer-grade computing products that were available.

In terms of their resilience against dust, moisture, and other threats?

Davidson: Exactly. Most of the computing devices available at that time, and still today, were made for people like us — indoors, sitting at a desk a majority of the time. Our target was outside, in the elements, moving around where things might get dropped, or bumped, or exposed to moisture through rain or spills. Or in vehicles where they have to be mounted and are exposed to heavy vibrations.

There was an opportunity. We had a lot of customers come to us and say they needed devices that simply did not exist at that time. . . . This is where the Toughbook brand was born.

Was that a difficult challenge?

Davidson: It was not an easy thing to do. Th at's why the majority of [manufacturers] don't do it currently, even 15 years later. Building a truly ruggedized computer requires a completely different mindset. Most of the industry is now focused on cost — to make a device cheaper. In many cases, to achieve this, what most manufacturers do is outsource.

You can have the lowest-cost, fastest device, but if it doesn't work when you hit the power button or when it gets rained on or dropped, nothing else matters.

We work with data that are mission-critical, and thus the hardware has to be mission-critical. The focus is actually on the product quality, the durability, the reliability. . . . We're one of the only computer companies leftthat actually makes every single product that we sell.

We start from day one in the design phase and build Toughbook computers rugged and durable from the ground up, as opposed to taking a consumer- grade product and ruggedizing it. Ruggedizing a consumer-grade product is like taking an egg and putting a steel roll cage around it.

Have your products evolved significantly since 15 years ago?

Davidson: They evolved, but we've also expanded our line. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. We have a very broad product line to meet the needs of a number of different users.

We have devices that are health care specific. We have other devices that are designed for field workers. Our devices are more tailored to the needs of the users than an everyday laptop.

I see. Are computers used in typical health care settings often handled roughly or spilled on a lot?

Davidson: To differing degrees. First of all, health care workers are some of the most mobile workers out there. Nurses and doctors are not sitting at a desk all day long. They're going from room to room, from patient to patient, and sometimes going from building to building or campus to campus. The more mobile the user, the more likely things are going to get dropped or exposed to vibrations or liquid spills.

Second, clinicians are working in an environment with patients and sickness. As a result, devices need to be sanitized like any other piece of medical equipment. These devices need to be able to be cleaned with alcohol, etc. Say you're in a room with a patient and that patient sneezes; germs can get on the device, and you don't want to take that to the next patient's room. You don't want these devices to turn into a biohazard. They have to be sanitized.

The most important thing — for health care and also for a lot of the other industries we focus on — has to do with data being mission-critical. These days with hospitals and all of health care, it's all about electronic health records. As opposed to the times of paper charts, where that paper only existed in one place with one person, today you've got patients seeing multiple doctors and multiple nurses, perhaps they're at home having home health nurses come out. You've got a lot of people who need access to the data to make proper decisions about the patient's care.

That's the transition: to make all of that data electronic. And now that it's electronic, all of that is mission-critical data not only to the workers, but also mission-critical to the quality of care. So it's not just about, "can this thing handle a drop?" It's "will this device be there for you when you turn the device on?"

Are there specific health care standards these products meet?

Davidson: There are a few standards that apply to our products. Military standards, or "MilSpec," have to do with a number of different categories: how they can be dropped, what kind of moisture and dust exposures can they handle. It's the number of tests that they have to pass for several different grades of military standards.

There's also a standard called the Ingress Protection rating, a two-number rating that has to do with water and dust resistance and also drop rating.

At Panasonic, we try to stay away from generic terms like "durable" and "rugged." We focus more on these industry standards. When we say our device has an IP65 rating, you know exactly what that means. But to get that rating, our product has to be tested by a third-party organization, so it's not just us saying that.

Do the same computers you sell for medical use also go to fire and law enforcement users?

Davidson: We have some devices, like our new Toughbook H1, which was designed from day one for health care use. There are elements to it designed specifically for the health care market, but that doesn't mean that somebody in law enforcement might not say, "Hey, this works for me, as well."

When we build a product, we build it for a certain segment. And then our customers start taking the products into different areas that perhaps we didn't think of before.

Health care is an awfully big market, and the military is also. Are they the biggest segments you serve with these products?

Davidson: We're broken down into three divisions. We have a government division, which handles the military; we have a team that does nothing but Army, a team that does nothing but Navy [because] we have so much business from the military. Law enforcement, public safety, fire, and EMS are another large segment within that government space.

The second division is enterprise, which focuses on field workers, sales forces, inspectors, route delivery personnel, and mobile workers in areas such as telecom and utilities. And the third division is health care.

We started offbuilding these rugged devices for government and law enforcement, and since then, we've broadened our product line in the last 15 years. That's taken us more into the commercial space with the enterprise group and health care.

How do these models compare in costs and performance with the computers with which our readers are familiar?

Davidson: There's a survey done by PC Magazine every year. They interview computer users across a number of industries. One of the things they ask about is their failure rate, how often their devices break and go down while in service. It varies from year to year among the larger computer brands, but the average, year in and year out, is typically about 22 to 25 percent. So about a quarter of [all] devices that these computer users are buying are going down at some point during the year. These failures are taking place in rather tame user environments.

Most environments we work in, where data reliability is critical — a quarter of devices going down every year does not work, does not make sense. The failure rate for all of our products — in very demanding work environments — is less than 3 percent.

Our products are going to cost more to buy up front. However, what we've found from talking with our customers and doing a lot of ROI and total cost of ownership studies is, our products are going to cost our customers less over the lifetime of the device. [Our products] are going to last longer and perhaps be replaced every four years, maybe five years, and not have to be replaced every 18 months.

Do you mean every five years is how often hospitals and health care users look to replace their computers?

Davidson: It varies. We interviewed customers at our annual health care event last year. I'll tell you that no customer raised their hand to say they replace their units in less than three years. Three years is typically the minimum; oftentimes, depending on budget cycles, it has to be four or even five years.

We offer a three-year warranty standard on all of our products. And we also offer four-and five-year warranties because we know our products are being used that long.

You mentioned the H1 and how it needs to be resistant to splash and able to be wiped down. Does anything else about it specialize it for the health care market?

Davidson: Intel spent a couple of years talking with practitioners and coming up with this new category of product called a mobile clinical assistant, or MCA. They brought this design out to a lot of the computer manufacturers as kind of a reference design. Panasonic took another two and a half years, both taking the design back to our factory and having our engineers decide what we needed to do to make this product to Toughbook standards, and also talking with customers, doctors and nurses, to understand what they liked and didn't like.

It's a very unique product. There's no attached keyboard to it. We've eliminated the majority of ports on the device, so it's completely sealed. You don't have these open ports and gaps where germs, viruses, and biohazards might get into the device. This was a big factor in the design.

We also added a number of features that you find in other devices but are appropriate for health care. We built in a fingerprint reader for biometric sign-in, built-in RFID reader, integrated camera, built-in bar code scanner to be able to scan patients' wrist bands and medicines to make sure you're giving the right dosage to the right patient. The idea behind all of this is to try to take a lot of the peripherals doctors and nurses have been carrying around in addition to their computer and put them all into one device, or as close to one as you can get.

How long has it been out?

Davidson: We started shipping the product in the fall of 2008. How well has it been accepted?

Davidson: Overall, it's been very well accepted. The use of bar coding has become more and more prominent in health care to eliminate medical errors, and that's built in it. It's a big advantage and a big selling point for the device. With a laptop, you know what it does. With this being an entirely new category of device, there's certainly a learning curve. There's a lot more trials of the device.

As years pass after their introduction, most computing devices get cheaper and more capable. Does that happen with this category?

Davidson: Yes, that's the case across all computing products. Your components cost less, and they get faster. As the market grows for a device, you're able to bring costs down simply from economies of scale. With these new devices, you sort of start the game over, but as they go through their life cycle, you'll start to see prices drop.

If you're an inventive company, you're always reinventing the game. As Panasonic did with the H1.

What do you think is coming next? Maybe a new generation of the H1 — the H2?

Davidson: Without a doubt. We are not content to rest on our laurels. We spend a lot of time in front of our customers, discussing what they're seeing in their environments and what products they'd like to have. I don't see any time in the near future where we'll be selling the same thing over and over again. If we have this interview again five years from now, we'll have devices that are very different from what we have today.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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