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Paging Dr. Tux

Jun 07, 2008, 01:30 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor (and Potential Citizen of Oz)

Okay, so for like, the second time in six years, I'm late with a column. I have a fairly good reason this week: a tornado warning aimed straight for my home.

The good news is, this was one of those Doppler-indicated rotations, so there was no actual touchdown. Lots of lightning, though, so I felt it prudent to shut down my systems as the storm passed. All is well now, though, and I'm ready to jot some things down.

Dealing with emergencies like this is something that a lot of us (hopefully) do not have to do. But whether its nature or violence or technological failure, bad things do happen to people and being equipped to deal with such things is very important.

As some of you may recall, I spend one night a week volunteering at a local hospital. When we moved to our new home last year, the local hospital assigned me to the emergency room, which is, to say the very least, very interesting. As the local trauma center for a small city, all manner of cases come through the ER: from the child who's swallowed a coin to the gunshot victim who's not going to make it through the night.

You might imagine that I don't get a lot of tech exposure in this job, which consists mainly of prepping rooms, making patients and visitors comfortable, and doing the various odd errand. And you would be right. This week however, during a lull, I noticed one of the EMTs had brought in one of their Toughbooks, the Panasonic laptop that's designed for lots of outdoor work.

Now, off the bat, I noted that it was running Windows XP. Being a geek and wanting to catch a breather, I introduced myself and asked him if he liked the device. He told me that it was all right, but he wished it could do more.

I queried him a bit and he explained that when they'd received them, they had been promised a device that would allow for more comprehensive coverage with the hospitals before, during, and after patient transport. And while the little laptop was good for things like log keeping and supply tracking, the communication aspect of it was fairly limited.

It was not just the machine's fault; the various hospitals in the area did not have equipment or software to receive patient information from these laptops. Ambulance services, public and private, still have to rely on voice communication and dedicated telemetry units to transmit things like heart rhythm and rate.

In other words, just like on the 1970s TV show Emergency!. Granted, that's just one county with a medium-sized population. But there's a lot more total patients going through those ERs than the big metro hospitals in the US.

So here's what I'd like to see happen: all of this new UMPC/netbook technology that's making the headlines right now is great stuff. I love it, and am contemplating picking up such a device for myself. How cool would it be if a project could come together to adapt one of the mobile Linux platforms into something insanely stable and able to communicate with the hospitals from the field?

On the flip-side, build a cluster of Linux machines that could immediately pull in and index all of the data being sent in from the field devices: images, data, voice. One box talking to the hospital, with screens of information coming in to let nurses and doctors make faster decisions about how to treat the patient.

I think about things like that, and think about them running Linux so they're cheaper, faster, and more secure right out of the box, and I wonder how such a thing might get started.

Maybe with just a word in someones' ears.