Solving the challenge of mobile printing

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After seeing several ads this week for new mobile printing systems, allowing users to print from smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, my interest was piqued.

With the rush to enable mobile functionality, have CIOs overlooked the relatively low-tech question of whether physicians and other users physically get their hands the data they're looking at on their mobile devices? I knew from past research that tablets, in particular, are tough to print from, with smartphones a close second in terms of difficulty.

When I talked with several CIOs about the issue, the most common response was "we're electronic, so we shouldn't need to print." The goal is clearly a paperless one--to have providers completing all tasks online, without ever printing or handling paper files.

But when pressed, most admitted they're wrestling with the question on different levels. Here are some of their tips to help you think the problem through:

Consider both sides of the device. The technical challenge of mobile printing is two-fold, according to Steven Dean, telehealth director for Inova Health System in Northern Virginia. First you need an application that allows users to view the documents on their mobile device and check that they're correct. But then you need a direct interface between the mobile device and the printer, he explains. He uses iOS' Airprint, which does both, but requires the printer to support AirPrint software. However, for native apps developed for mobile devices, you may need a specific reader/interpreter app to allow for printing from within the app, he notes.

Try network-side control. Rather than bothering with device-specific printing considerations, some CIOs are using "server-side" printing. For example, at Texas Health Resources in Dallas/Fort Worth, CIO Edward Marx provides Citrix mobile access to his Epic system, which physicians can use to print from their iPads. The Citrix sessions allow for printing, but connects the user via the network--no direct connection to the printer neccessary.

Put it through the cloud. Todd Richardson, CIO of Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Ind., insists he has a paperless system, but admits he has spent some time checking out recent wireless printing options from companies like Lexmark. Print requests can be transmitted from the mobile device through the cloud and back down to the hospital servers securely, he explains, which could be a solid solution.

Look for location-aware print options. One important issue for printing is specifically where the user's page will print out, notes Larry Nathanson, director of Emergency Medical Informatics for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"Current solutions either force the user to go to a fixed location to get their printout, or 'allow' them to choose from (a potentially huge) list of printers," he says. "Location-aware applications have been a huge hit on a macro-scale. I think the time is ripe for micro-scale location aware applications -- this is one of the problems that could be elegantly solved with that technology."

I'll be interested to see which of these different approaches ultimately becomes the industry consensus. What about you? Do you have a different solution to the printing problem? Let me know by leaving a comment, below--or send me an email. - Sara