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The secure virtual desktop streamlines clinical workflow

The technology behind secure desktop virtualization is a good fit for healthcare on a pair of important levels: Physicians get more time, and IT gets more control.

When it works well, a secure virtual desktop can keep two healthcare factions happy: physicians and IT professionals.

The benefits of desktop virtualization are plentiful. For doctors and nurses, virtual desktops save time and hassle, thus freeing up bandwidth to interact with patients. Meanwhile, for IT folks, the technology increases end-user satisfaction and ideally keeps sensitive patient information safely tucked away in data centers and off of portable devices.

The technology behind virtual desktops isolates the operating system (OS) within a data center or data warehouse, using virtual machines to render a snapshot of the OS on devices. Generally, within healthcare settings, that data center resides on-premises.

With such a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), IT professionals manage application installations and upgrades on the back end, said David Chou, a health IT consultant who until recently served as CIO at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss.

David Chou, consultantDavid Chou

"I could push out 10,000 laptops or desktops with the same settings with a VDI," Chou said. "Any changes you make on the back end, it goes out to all the users, in the ideal world, seamlessly."

Not that there aren't some potential catches, he added. He's experienced VDI hiccups with EHRs, enterprise resource planning systems and other ancillary technologies. For example, if an organization administers a large number of apps, VDIs might perform slowly at times, he said. From his experience, bigger, multicampus hospital systems may have a harder time pulling off seamless desktop virtualization.

Pediatric hospital likes the secure virtual desktop

Virtualization has scaled well at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, a 495-bed pediatric facility in Southern California. The organization uses virtual technology to deliver data from its EHR to its clinicians via portable devices and workstations, Sean Updegrove, associate vice president and chief technology officer, told SearchHealthIT at the HIMSS 2016 conference.

Secure virtual desktops remain a priority for the technology at the hospital, which is able to integrate multifactor authentication and the secure transmittal of personal health information, Updegrove said.

I could push out 10,000 laptops or desktops with the same settings with a VDI.
David Chouconsultant

"The best part about it is the data doesn't ever leave my warehouse or my data center," he added. "We're just shooting screenshots, essentially, so nobody can intercept the traffic and know what's going on."

VDI brings other plusses, too, as outlined by Brian Madden, a desktop virtualization expert who blogs on the topic at BrianMadden.com, a sister website of SearchHealthIT. Those benefits include:

  • Virtual desktops are hardware agnostic.
  • They can support heavyweight CPU apps and legacy apps.
  • They allow rapid assimilation of systems from mergers and acquisitions.

Time saved keeps physicians moving

From a physician's point of view, being able to access a set of applications or data from anywhere is a big draw -- and one that can improve workflow, said Madden, who recorded a video presentation on the topic.

For example, if a doctor walks into a patient room, he or she can go up to a shared terminal, log in, and familiar apps and info appear on the screen, Madden said in the video. When the physician walks away, the computer locks itself.

Desktop virtualization expert Jack Madden explains the importance of mobility management in hospitals.

The consistent look or feel for a desktop, whether they use their own device or a centralized computer, is a strong selling point for clinicians, Chou said.

Add-ons to VDI technology, such as single sign-on apps, can make the process move even quicker, as can proximity readers.

"It works," Madden said. "What desktop virtualization does is built for healthcare."

Desktop as a service looms as next step

A related area that Chou is watching is desktop as a service (DaaS), which he described as essentially a cloud provider hosting the back end of a VDI. DaaS needs more maturity before it is accepted widely, Chou said.

However, as more and more of the healthcare business moves to the cloud, CIOs should try to learn more about DaaS and its implications, particularly if they are still looking at a secure virtual desktop as a future investment, he added.

Next Steps

Key things to consider for a secure virtual desktop in hospitals

Healthcare VDI products have a lot to offer

Hurdles to overcome when installing virtual desktops

This was last published in April 2016

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