Surface tablets with digitized pens gain a toehold in healthcare

Microsoft Surface tablets are the underdog in a competitive market but the company's new devices are gaining some ground in the healthcare segment

Nineteen months after Microsoft unveiled its Surface tablets, the company has gained a precious toehold in a highly competitive market.

Surface tablets have yet to capture a large part of the growing market due to the popularity of Apple Inc.'s iPad and Google, Inc.'s Android devices. But in some pockets of vertical segments such as healthcare, IT pros see the Surface as a good fit for their business, especially the Surface Pro 2.

Microsoft recently paraded its new healthcare customers including Aegis Living, Community Health Accreditation Program, Seattle Children's Hospital and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

"Verticals will be a key piece," said Bob Egan, CEO and founder of the Sepharim Group, a mobile consulting firm based in Falmouth, Mass. "In general, Surface is making some inroads."

The Surface tablet has gotten a bad rap for running on Windows RT, and complaints around the Surface Pro center on poor battery life, higher cost, reliance on the confusing Windows 8 user interface and lack of applications. But some vertical markets and end users don't see those issues as major challenges for their particular applications.

Perhaps the biggest reason IT shops adopt the Surface tablets is that their businesses already run Microsoft applications. In addition, a digitized pen, USB slot and even Surface's signature kickstand all helped decision makers select the Microsoft tablets.

"Microsoft…is realizing that verticals can sort of 'surface' these opportunities where the platform offers benefits you couldn't get in desktop PCs," said Wes Miller, research vice president, Directions on Microsoft, an IT consulting organization based in Kirkland, Wash. Healthcare often uses Windows devices that miss the benefits of using a stylus or touch, he added.

The big void is guidance from Microsoft on how corporations can build unique applications for their business, instead of just marketing Surface Pro as a desktop PC replacement, Miller said.

Despite the recent vertical market wins, Surface is still seen as the underdog in the competitive tablet market space against leaders such as Apple's iPad and other Android-based devices.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will soon add another version of the Surface 2 product line up: an LTE version of Surface 2, slated for delivery early this year.

Why healthcare verticals choose Surface tablets

Aegis Living serves elderly assisted living residents in 29 communities in Washington and California. The company went from a paper-based model to using Surface RT tablets, which medical technicians use to keep track of medications administered to the residents -- an area with little room for error.

The biggest question for Aegis was whether Microsoft is committed to Surface for the long-term or whether it would be something like Zune, said David Eskenazy, president of Aegis, based in Redmond, Wash., referring to the ill-fated digital MP3 music player that was discontinued after a few years.

Eskenazy so far has been pleased with the Surface deployment and expects to see some efficiency for using the device. In fact, he was surprised how workers only needed a single day of training or less to learn how to navigate through Surface's system and use the company's Web-based application.

"The most important [issue] was cutting down on the risk of the paper process and having medication errors occur…[with] someone scribbling notes or changing medication," Eskenazy said.

Community Health Accreditation Program (CHAP) Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that accredits community-based health organizations, used older Toshiba laptops and Dell tablets they needed to replace.

Several key factors pushed CHAP's decision to adopt Surface Pro including its existing Windows software application: the need to document and review notes during an interview, and a digitized stylus for taking notes and converting it to text.

CHAP's goal was to get better and more accurate documentation, said Traci Padgett, senior vice president of quality and information management. The company purchased approximately 115 128GB Surface Pros, with the majority deployed to the mobile staff and another 10 to 15 units residing in the office.

"Surface mirrored our processes and allowed us to do what we needed to do [such as] take notes in a vehicle versus being in a desktop-oriented environment," Padgett said.

Before making the Surface Pro decision last year, Padgett investigated other tablets and was not impressed with some devices that had clumsy hinge designs, nor did any offer a digitized pen.

The digitized pen is critical for CHAP and the healthcare industry, Padgett noted, adding the company also used a handwriting text application that worked with its own custom application.

The Surface Pro deployment has overall been a smooth experience. However, the biggest change for CHAP's staff was to move from Windows XP to Windows 8, Padgett said. The company provided a full week of training to get the workers used to the tablet hardware and software applications.  

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