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Virtual Healthcare

PHYSICIANS AND OTHER hospital employees need access to computers throughout the day. While that’s typical of many workers, healthcare workers differ in that their access needs tend to be less location-dependent.

Like many hospitals, Genesys Regional Healthcare Center used to have traditional desktop workstations throughout its facilities. But physicians and other employees found it increasingly challenging to gain access to a computer when they needed it. One problem, says CIO Dan Stross, was the relatively long time that the machines took to boot up.

But accessibility has significantly improved at the Grand Blanc, Michigan-based organization since it began rolling out desktop virtualization software and thin-client devices, Stross says. In desktop virtualization, the software applications reside on a central server, and employees access a virtual representation on their own desktop.

The system has also strengthened security and compliance. That’s because the locked-down, preconfigured set of applications has reduced employees’ ability to download risky software. Another benefit has been lower data loss risks because company information has moved from end points to centralized servers.

With the help of an outside consulting firm, Coretek, Stross looked into solutions from vendors including VMware, Citrix, and Symantec. Symantec’s Endpoint Virtualization Suite seemed to work particularly well with Genesys’ then-deployed applications and systems, he says. The hospital decided to try Symantec’s solution along with thin client devices from Wyse Technology.

In an initial pilot, eight devices were deployed at eight hospital locations. A group of doctors was asked to use the devices only when they were nearby, says Stross. But many physicians were soon actively seeking out the thin clients.

As part of a larger rollout, individual physicians were given new access cards. Each card was equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which could be read by a Wyse thin client RFID reader. Physicians were shown how they could enter a password and quickly access a preconfigured package of programs.

The presentation was relatively straightforward, and thus, little additional training was required after the initial authentication, Stross says. The broader rollout did require helpdesk and other staff, however, to be more available to answer questions about the system.

Sign-on and boot-up time, which Stross says used to take up to three minutes, now takes about 10 seconds. Physicians can also sign off by pressing a single button, and they can then pick up their “virtual” session at any other client device.

Virtualization has also saved IT staff’s time, mainly due to streamlined delivery of patches and upgrades.

The quicker sign-on process has resulted in far fewer occasions of computers that are left on when not in use, reducing privacy risks, says Stross. The locked-down applications have made it impossible for staff to download risky applications.

Although the previous Microsoft Windows system was supposedly locked, employees could download applications such as Instant Messaging. As the thin devices lack USB ports, there is also less risk of data loss, or “people walking off with a large part of the ‘C’ drive.”

Stross predicts the new system will reduce company cost outlays through lower power expenditures and higher labor efficiency. Hardware expenditure requirements have also declined, he says. Not only does the hospital require fewer thin clients than it did traditional workstations but the thin clients, which run about $250 each, are also cheaper, reducing both upfront and replacement costs.

One potential downside is that centralizing so much of the IT infrastructure could increase security risks. It has become more important, Stross says, to back up servers and other data-center hardware “so a single server outage does not take down the whole environment.”