Unwiring the Ambulance

By Adam Stone

November 29, 2005

In Motion sees the vast amount of vehicles on the road as an untapped market, starting with the highly-regulated world of emergency medical response.

Next time the paramedic comes rushing in, don't be surprised to see a medical bag under one arm and a laptop under the other. Driven by the need for speed coupled with new regulatory pressure, ambulance-based Wi-Fi could be a thing of the not-too-distant future.

Ambulance service provider American Medical Response (AMR) recently unveiled a technologically advanced vehicle that includes, among other features, an In Motion Technology system that pairs a cellular Internet backhaul connection with the Wi-Fi-driven ability to take information beyond the vehicle.

With their PDAs and laptops hooked up to home base via Wi-Fi, paramedics "can take those devices and go outside of the vehicle," says In Motion CTO Larry LeBlanc. "When they arrive on the site, they can take a laptop to the patient and fill in the care information that they are giving."

The alternative? Paper records, sometimes handwritten, that often must be transcribed either back in the ambulance or at the hospital. This has raised issues both in terms of efficiency and regulatory compliance, under government rulings such as HIPAA that set strict rules on the timeliness, accuracy and privacy of medical records.

Patient information must be readily available for audit, and the Wi-Fi connection can help make that happen, LeBlanc says. "Being able to collect that info in digital format from the start makes the process that much more efficient."

The Wi-Fi-to-gateway solution also helps resolve security concerns that are pervasive in the medical community these days.

"Certainly, people are aware of the issue, and one of the things they like about this solution is that our mobile gateway is also an application server with an embedded hard drive," LeBlanc explains. "That means that instead of storing those data on a laptop that can be lost or stolen, the data can instantly be transferred to the gateway, which remains inside the vehicle, literally bolted down. It's a much more secure solution than just having all those records on portable devices."

While the idea of more and faster information is generally an attractive one, analysts note that a lot of the business rationale here seems to come from the back-end. That is, the Wi-Fi solution helps with efficiency and with compliance, but does it help the first responders?

"How much additional workload is it for the people working in these services? Is this simplifying their lives, or it is just another thing for them to do while they ought to be doing other things?" asks Eddie Hold, Vice President and Research Director of Wireless Service at the research firm Current Analysis.

If anything, LeBlanc says, Wi-Fi will make emergency personnel more productive, enhancing their ability to record information without pulling them away from other duties.

At the same time, the cellular gateway will be driving greater operational efficiency on the front end. Ambulance operators "want to give their drivers more accurate information, to give them routing capabilities in their vehicles," LeBlanc says. In the latest AMR vehicle, the dispatcher in the central office can push a button and give all the information about where to pick up a patient.

In Motion faces competition both from mid-sized vendors like Verilink and from bigger players such as Cisco, which offers a mobile access router for vehicle deployment. At the same time, the nature of a fleet-based clientele presents its own unique challenges, for instance in terms of product upgrades.

"If you are a national operator with dozens of vehicles scattered around, how do you efficiently roll out the application to all those vehicles without having to drive them all into the garage?" LeBlanc says. To that end, In Motion is actively working to increase the sophistication of its ability to push out touch-free updates to users.

Perhaps the most promising sign for In Motion is the simple fact that fleet-based Wi-Fi remains by and large an untapped market. LeBlanc says the company plans to look at utility companies and government fleets next, as it moves to deepen acceptance of Wi-Fi among fleet operators.

"There are a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of offices," he says. "But there are a lot of vehicles on the road too."



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