Keeping Health Facilities Humming
"We work with industries where data are mission-critical, and thus the hardware has to be mission-critical."
- By OH&S Staff
- Jan 01, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Health care is an awfully big market,
and the military is also. Are they the
biggest segments you serve with these
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
How do these models compare
in costs and performance
with the computers
with which our readers are
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
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
As years pass after their introduction,
most computing devices get cheaper and
more capable. Does that happen with this
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 —
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.