By Derrick W. VanKampen, AS, Network +, RFID +, Security +, CWNA, CEHDerrickDerrick W. VanKampen, AS, Network +, RFID +, Security +, CWNA, CEH

Biomedical equipment technicians and the support they provide are the glue that holds the clinical environment together—though their work often goes unrecognized unless something goes wrong. Many biomedical managers have toiled endless hours trying to think of ways to communicate to others the critical role their department plays. In the health care IT world, there exists a group of individuals who can identify with the clinical/biomedical engineering department’s invisibility crisis, a team that knows very well the experience of performing critical operations while largely going unnoticed until something goes wrong. This group is known as the interface team, and chances are good that you may have never heard of this group or had direct interaction with them. When biomeds and the interface team get together, there are many positive outcomes that can emerge for the hospital.

For an organization that has not yet begun a biomedical device integration initiative, you may find out that you can achieve a foundational level of device integration for pennies on the dollar utilizing your existing hospital interfaces instead of expensive third-party middleware. Through the effective use of interfaces, your biomedical department can also reduce downtime associated with equipment failure. By understanding more what the interface team does and selectively partnering with them, you can provide connectivity and automation to your organization, and do so in a very cost-effective manner.

The Benefit of Interfaces

In a nutshell, the interface team provides a software solution called interfaces that acts as a gateway through which two or more hospital systems can share and receive data. Large health care organizations can literally have hundreds of interfaces set up and sharing data. This data sharing can be either unidirectional or bidirectional, depending on what level of communication is needed. When one hospital system needs to send data to another hospital system, it is possible the two systems might not use the same protocol or language. In this case, the interfaces act as interpreters, so to speak. In like manner, different hospital systems sometimes require values or measurements to be in different formats specific to their system. In order to share information, many interfaces have the ability to translate values and measurements as well. Analysts that customize processes according to the needs of the receiving systems set up these translations on the interfaces. Interfaces may also be used to trim unnecessary data before it is received by another system, limiting the amount of network bandwidth that is being used. Another benefit provided by interfaces is the ability to monitor data flow from a system and send alerts when critical information is missing or incomplete. This functionality offers a lot of potential benefits in regard to biomedical support.

Creating a good relationship with the interface team provides important outcomes for the hospital, such as cost-effective connectivity.

Biomedical device integration (BMDI) is a term that is commonly used to explain the process of extracting patient data from biomedical devices and sending that data to an electronic medical record (EMR). When researching this term on the Web, you will invariably come across a number of vendors who offer systems that provide the ability to send this patient data from your biomedical devices to your EMR. These systems are basically interfaces with some extra bells and whistles, marketed specifically for the purpose of BMDI. There are essentially two types of BMDI they provide, the first being the sending of patient data from biomedical devices which are networked and have a gateway or database server from which the biomedical devices send their data. The second type of BMDI they offer is for isolated biomedical devices that are not on a network.

Usually, the way the BMDI vendor extracts data from these stand-alone biomedical devices is by offering an interface device or software on a PC that connects to the biomedical device. It pulls the serial data and converts it to the Internet Protocol (IP) address and then sends it to the BMDI interface. Regardless of the third-party vendor or the type of BMDI being employed, they all cost money.

Working with the Interface Team

Regarding the first type of BMDI described above as consisting of biomedical devices that already reside on a network, it is of the utmost importance to contact your interface team prior to purchasing a BMDI vendor solution. Often, the interfaces that your organization already uses for other systems can be used to send data from your biomedical systems to the EMR without the need of a third-party vendor. For example, say your organization has physiological monitors in your ICUs that are currently networked to a database server. That database server more than likely has the ability to send data out in the format such as HL7 or XML that your current interfaces can pass on or translate, if needed, and send to the EMR. By employing the services of your interface team, you can greatly reduce your BMDI expenditures.

Another great value in cultivating a healthy relationship with your interface team is the ability to reduce downtime associated with biomedical device failure. It is important to have your biomedical systems sending data to an interface so you can have alerts sent if your system goes down, or if your system is malfunctioning and not sending all the patient data. When a biomedical device or system goes down, there can often be a substantial amount of time that passes from when the nurse on the floor notices the failure to when the biomedical/clinical engineering department gets contacted. Sometimes, the nurse will not notice an equipment failure right away, or there may be a process in place of having to notify a help desk. These variables, among others, can lengthen the biomedical support process. Wouldn’t it be nice if you responded to a failure before the nurse even noticed? The interface team can provide this functionality. It can also set up alerts to monitor and notify the biomed department when data flow out of the biomedical systems is missing, or even partially there, specifying a specific device on the network is down.

There are many benefits to a healthy relationship with your organization’s interface team. By working with them, the health care technology management department will realize that opportunities for cost savings, efficient work processes, and connectivity abound. Don’t delay. Set up a meeting with your interface team today! 24×7 December 2012 “Networking” column.

Derrick W. VanKampen, AS, Network +, RFID +, Security +, CWNA, CEH, is a former Air Force BMET who is now an IT clinical engineer for Tampa General Hospital, Tampa, Fla. For more information,     contact [email protected].