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Harvard Medical goes remote

Going back to the advent of the Apple Newton PDA, system integrators and power users have tried to adapt handheld and wireless devices for use within hospital systems. But development managers in these settings sometimes take on wireless integration work with unease.

A talk with Dr. John Halamka indicates that significant progress is being made in the area of wireless computing. He decided to adhere to some ground rules, and build on existing Web-based content managing systems, rather than start with a new slate.

In doing so, Halamka selected remote system integration software from AvantGo, now part of iAnywhere Solutions, a subsidiary of Sybase Inc.

Halamka wears a few hats. He serves as CIO of the Harvard Clinical Research Institute, Harvard Medical School and the CareGroup Health System, and is also the chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network. It is his job to use technology to improve the workings of medicine.

Technology expenses must be kept in check, so Halamka opted to extend existing systems where he could. What he and his team built was a set of e-learning applications. Third-party integrator ArcStream Solutions also worked on the initial app, known as "My Courses," which can feed hospital case log notes, lecture notes, anatomy illustrations, exam calendars and scheduling announcements to the PDAs of Harvard Med students as they make their rounds.

The medical data involved is a moving target. If there is an outbreak of a disease, relevant material can be made available in PDF form for download to the students' PDAs.

"What I wanted to do was leverage our existing software investments," explained Halamka.

Of the Sybase M-Business server he said: "It enables us in a very straightforward way to rapidly produce content, prototype it and distribute it. From an application development standpoint, I didn't have to train my team in any new technology," said Halamka.

Did he consider alternatives when initial selections were made a couple of years ago? "Palm had some products, but they only ran on Palm," he said. "Microsoft had their mobile information server, but it only ran with Windows or Pocket PC."

Development issues, as well as deployment issues, were at play. "If we had done Palm we would have become C programmers," said Halamka. "I didn't want to start writing application code using a Palm developer kit. I wanted to keep doing the Web stuff we were already doing.

"We decided the best choice was a standards-based, vendor-neutral, runs-anywhere architecture," he continued. That proved a fundamental decision in this project. It was an especially important part of the effort to entice end users; Harvard Medical students are able use their own mobile devices.

Elaborate synchronization was not required by students as they moved from hospital to hospital within the Harvard learning hospital network. They could access information through an 802.11b connection or in offline mode.

What is the next app in the suite? "Flash cards," said Halamka. "Students [will be able to] generate flash cards, such as 'Name the top three causes of hypertension,' and author and exchange these flashcards [with mobility]."

For its part, Sybase's iAnywhere Solutions subsidiary has moved to integrate the AvantGo M-Business software into its wider offerings. The company has released a free M-Business Anywhere Developer Edition that allows developers to "mobilize" their Web apps with limited re-coding, noted Ojas Rege, senior director of mobile solutions at iAnywhere.

Rege said integration for M-Business Anywhere with SQL Anywhere StudioLite database software is now in the offing. This means a database local to a device can be accessed using ubiquitous JavaScript. And programmers working in HTML, JavaScript and XML can build applications with sophisticated data transport.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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