Just a few years ago a request for field service could test the limits of any biomed’s patience. Typically, the call center operator could not answer many questions or immediately dispatch a technician to answer the call.

Upon arriving at the site, the technician all too often lacked the requisite parts or knowledge to handle the problem. The advent of intelligent, automated question-and-answer trees seemed to magnify some of the inefficiencies of field service. It was possible to wander through these systems for hours without results.

Time for a New System Model
The old field-service stereotype has been replaced with a new field-service management paradigm. The best of these systems allow call center operators to immediately place a service request to the field-service engineer via his handheld. He then arrives at the site with background on the problem and the correct tools and parts. In many cases, the call can actually be closed by the time the technician leaves the site, not 7 to 10 days later when there is the time to complete the paperwork and submit it to the main office.

This new service paradigm is much more efficient and economical than the old, but not all solutions are created equal. It is worth one’s time to do some homework before purchasing a field-service management tool.

Michael Blumberg, COO of DF Blumberg Associates, a management consulting firm in Fort Washington, Pa, explains, “Some software companies really know health care and medical devices. Others really know service.” Medical-device service does have some unique concerns. Take HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). Blumberg says, “Biomeds may need to educate software vendors about what HIPAA means. No one wants to buy a system that won’t be current under HIPAA.”

There are certainly some field-service vendors who develop products geared to health care, but many of them develop their products for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or independent service operators (ISOs). Many biomed shops do not operate in that environment but in a hospital or other health care facility. In those cases, the hospitals need to ask if an off-the-shelf solution can meet its needs or can be made to fit them.

On the service end, biomeds may be unaware of the depth and breadth of the latest offerings and capabilities. “Biomeds are often focused on tools that provide asset management. That’s not enough. They need optimization tools for diagnostics, parts management, and dispatch,” Blumberg says.

Optimization has become a field-service buzzword, particularly when it comes to scheduling. Biomeds, however, can expect more than simple optimization tools in the latest round of field-service management systems. Many field-service management offerings now feature data warehousing and business-analysis tools, either integrated within the software or offered as an add-on. These features go beyond mere spreadsheets and allow managers to complete a deep-level analysis of service.

Nearly every field-service vendor markets a wireless option. Real-time communication is certainly a great tool, says Blumberg, but biomeds should work closely with the information technology department and vendor to ensure that the wireless solution will work within the hospital environment.

It is important to take the time to consider these issues, because a robust field-service system can cost $1 million to $3 million. Blumberg says biomeds tend to scale back and attempt to find a solution that fits the budget instead of a solution that is best for the enterprise. That is not necessarily a good idea. Blumberg advises, “Define your requirements first, and find a vendor that meets those needs.”

In some cases, it may help to hire a consultant to help the hospital determine its needs and the pros and cons of various field-service management systems.

A Quick Tour of the Field-Service Market
Blumberg opines, “Hospitals should consider using an application service provider (ASP) for field service. These solutions provide a lower cost of ownership by allowing the user to lease the system.” Genesis Development Corporation’s (Stow, Ohio) Genesis Online (GOL) may be the king of field-service ASP solutions.

s01a.jpg (7738 bytes)Astea’s Field-Service Management Tool

The company has just released the newest desktop version of its software; all customers receive the new software automatically with their monthly fee. The newest release features tighter integration between central dispatch and field-service technicians. It allows the operator to initiate a call, open a work order, and assign it to the technician. The technician can synchronize his pocket PC and immediately see the call. Most Genesis customers do have the company’s optional pocket GOL package, but Jeff Doak, Genesis’ chief information officer, notes, “We don’t require customers to buy our pocket PC. It’s not $2,000 for a Palm with our software. We can provide pocket PCs if needed, but we don’t mark them up.”

Lower cost of ownership is not the only advantage of an ASP. Customers also receive access to the company’s national database. Doak explains, “It’s a great time-saver and troubleshooting tool. It gives them the ability to go in and see common problems and resolutions.”

s01a.jpg (7738 bytes) Metrix Mobile Techlink® Pocket PC Alert

GOL may be the only company with all of its customers using a central server, but other companies are employing an Internet-enabled approach and at least partial use of a server. Metrix in Waukesha, Wis, is a good example. Doug Peters, vice president of eBusiness strategies, explains, “We’ve continued to move our Metrix field-service tools, including call-center functionality, contracts, inventory management, and repair center, to the Web.” The latest Metrix release adds a scheduling optimization engine focused on cost-efficiency. An optimized schedule can allow a technician to complete an additional two or three jobs each day; it also reduces travel time and overtime.

s01a.jpg (7738 bytes)Nexterna Clearview Communications CapabilitIes

Metrix’s new Mobile Techlink® tool enables real-time communication in the field via a pocket PC. The product works with Metrix’s back-end solutions and also offers adaptors for Oracle, SAP, MicroSoft CRM, PeopleSoft, and Siebel applications, so companies using those solutions do not need to purchase two separate packages.

Nexterna (Omaha, Neb) also anticipates that its field-service management tool can increase the number of visits per day. ClearView 2.0 connects offices within a system and field-service technicians in real-time via a wireless device. What does it look like in action? When a technician or biomed visits a site, all previous visits to the site, including contracts and warranties, are visible on the wireless device. At the end of the call, the customer signs an electronic work order that triggers work-order completion, ie, billing and inventory replenishment, in the field.

Nexterna’s roots are in the railroad industry, and the company carries that history into its field-service products. ClearView integrates field-service management with GPS capability. That means the dispatch center knows exactly where technicians are in real time throughout the day. This facilitates optimal decisions about which technician should be sent to which locations at what time.

Optimizing the Technical Team
Real-time information is certainly critical and helpful in the medical-device field, but it is not the only type of data that managers must contend with. Moshe BenBasset, PhD, CEO of ClickSoftware (Burlington, Mass), explains, “The challenge medical-equipment companies face is that they have to combine midrange and long-range planning with daily scheduling. The organization needs to be optimized at all levels.”

s01a.jpg (7738 bytes)Nexterna Clearview Software Functionality

Not only does optimization entail determining which technician should be sent to which site, it also ensures that an optimized company does not send too many technicians to training or approve too many vacations and leave itself understaffed. Finally, optimization means employing the right skill mix to complement corporate long-term growth plans.

s01a.jpg (7738 bytes)Click Software’s Click Analyze

ClickSoftware markets a full suite of products for service-chain planning. One of its primary updates is ClickPlan, which is focused on practical and long-term capacity planning. Targeted to service vice presidents, the software helps users determine how to plan for service of a new product to be launched in the future. Other offerings in the ClickSoftware suite of products are ClickSchedule and ClickForecast. ClickSchedule assists with daily scheduling, and ClickForecast outlines customer demand and the capacity to meet that demand. Finally, the company also markets ClickFix, a mobile computer-based expert system tool that guides technicians through troubleshooting and provides step-by-step instructions about how to fix common problems.

Managing Field-Service Relationships
Mobile communication has become a hot item in the field-service industry, but a complete field-service offering extends beyond applications for handheld computers. Best-of-breed players certainly offer real-time functionality; they also deliver the whole process throughout the enterprise, says Greg Cicio, vice president of strategic planning and corporate development for Astea International (Horsham, Pa). Astea’s field-service tools are focused on the complete customer relationship and help users manage relationships from point-of-sales prospecting to selling and servicing. Mobile users are tied to the entire business process; technicians can access all decision-making support, work-order details, warranty information, and diagnostic support tools on their pocket PCs. Information is integrated back to the enterprise system from technicians’ laptops. Similarly, transaction logs are also integrated into the enterprise system, which assists with some critical medical-device requirements. This capability simplifies compliance with Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Organizations guidelines and with 21 CFR, Part 2, a US Food and Drug Administration regulation requiring a complete transaction log of all changes to medical devices. Astea’s field-service management offering also provides a customer self-service portal that allows customers to look at preventive maintenance schedules, reporting statistics, requests for service, and technicians’ skill sets.

s01a.jpg (7738 bytes)Astea’s Field-Service Management Tool

The idea of a service portal is often overlooked by biomeds, says Blumberg. This type of cooperation between in-house shops and ISOs or OEMs can benefit all parties because it helps players work as partners.

Like Astea, Foresight Software in Atlanta has also focused on offering integrated solutions. Departmental solutions may fit the bill for individual departments but not the needs of the entire organization. What is the connection for field-service management tools? Mark Strange, director of marketing for Foresight, says, “A good field-service support system should give the ability to track expenses and revenue.” Foresight is poised to launch a new enterprise-resource-planning package and expects to integrate that software with its service-management system in the fourth quarter of 2003. This step will allow companies to natively tie together support, manufacturing, and distribution. The new package will also be more browser-based.

Remote Diagnostics to the Rescue
Other facets of field-service management are remote monitoring and diagnostic tools or device-relationship management (DRM). Blumberg explains, “The technology has improved a great deal and has become more robust. It can generate revenue and improve customer satisfaction.” The list of DRM pluses seems endless. It can aid the economics of service and help organizations deploy resources more effectively.

Metrix has recognized the appeal of this concept and partnered with Questra (Rochester, NY). The result is Metrix 4e with intelligent device management (IDM). The technology connects over the Internet to devices and integrates remote monitoring and real-time alerts. Alerts can be communicated instantly from faulty devices to wireless devices in the field. It can increase equipment uptime and first-visit resolution. Metrix 4e with IDM can fit a range of medical devices from MRIs to blood analyzers.

A good field-service management system can increase productivity and provide a detailed view into organizational service. It is important, however, to select the right system to meet the needs of the site. At the basic level, the wireless device should work in the hospital environment, and the system should be HIPAA-compliant. There are other important questions to consider. Can an ASP meet the hospital’s needs? Will a portal serve the hospital? Biomeds should talk to OEMs, ISOs, and field-service management system vendors about their field-service needs and discuss the big picture internally. The solution just may revolutionize service.

Lisa Fratt is a contributing writer for 24×7.