Palm Readings Forget prescription pads and handwritten care charts. Patients at Arlington's Virginia Hospital Center (VHC) should start seeing more doctors tapping at personal digital assistants. The hospital has installed a mobile system that allows doctors to transmit everything from vital signs to lab reports to and from a patient's bedside via handheld computers. The system, dubbed MData and designed by a company called MercuryMD, is used by only a few hospitals in the country. At VHC, it works in sync with the hospital's four-year-old digital patient data system.

More Time Docs who began using the system in March saw their efficiency jump, said Russell McWey, VHC's chief medical information officer. Previously, he said, when they "would go into the hospital and do rounds . . . they'd have to sit down at a terminal. Then they'd go to the patient and if the patients had questions, they'd have to go back to the terminal," he said. "Now you can download all the data at the same time."

Fewer Errors The Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 98,000 U.S. hospital patients die each year because of medical errors. McWey says the MData system should reduce errors -- by eliminating the need to transcribe patient orders or lab results (the source of many problems) -- and speed patient recovery.

What's Next The system will be fully integrated into a new $150 million patient facility at VHC, slated to open in November. That hospital will feature not only the MData system, but also technology to streamline care in the emergency room and allow doctors to view X-rays and other radiological images at home. "It's part of our goal to be the most progressive in information technology," said McWey.

-- Brian Reid

Better care is in hand at Virginia Hospital Center.