Optimizing Touchscreen Operation in Healthcare Applications

December 1, 2016 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

Constant torque hinges provide an ergonomic solution for mounting touchscreens to both mobile and stationary medical equipment. The infinite positioning makes it easy and intuitive to move the display, and holds it in place while the user taps icons and enters data on the touchscreen interface.

Todd Schwanger, Global Product Manager, Southco Inc.

The nurse carrying a clipboard containing a patient’s paper record is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Electronic records and digital interfaces are now ubiquitous throughout the healthcare industry – not just for patient records, but also for operating a wide range of therapeutic and diagnostic equipment.

The newest development in the digitalization of the healthcare infrastructure is the accelerating migration from traditional computer monitors to touchscreen devices. More and more across the healthcare landscape, the keyboard and mouse are being replaced with touchscreen interfaces – converting a static device that simply displays information into one that is continually touched, tapped, swiped and physically interacted with.

The advent of different types of touchscreen technology is not only changing how healthcare professionals access patient information, it also presents new challenges for the equipment designer. In order to provide the most ergonomic end user experience, designers must balance the force required to hold the display screen in position during use, while still allowing the end user to easily move and position the screen to their individual preference – without constant readjustment.

Current medical equipment design challenges

Medical equipment used in today’s healthcare environment is subject to extensive wear and tear. This equipment is in constant use, and may be exposed to harsh cleaning products or chemicals, extreme temperatures or biohazards. Patients or healthcare workers may lean on them. When moved or transported, machines are regularly subjected to shocks and bumps.

In the case of touchscreen technology, good ergonomics is vitally important, because touchscreens are the literal device with which critical patient data is entered and updated – whether by nurses using handheld tablets or mobile data entry stations. The accuracy of this data is critical, so if the hinge mechanisms mounting and supporting the touchscreens are subject to unneeded or accidental motion when used, staff can make errors or need to repeatedly correct inputs, reducing their efficiency.

Mobility impacts touchscreen use

Mobility is one key aspect that impacts how touchscreens are integrated into the current generation of medical equipment. The portability of medical equipment means that machines and terminals must be designed to accommodate mobility, while still addressing functionality.

One common example is the mobile nurse station. First generation models featured a display screen, keyboard, computer and wireless connectivity, all mounted on wheels to move from room to room for interaction with patients. The newest versions of these mobile systems are rapidly incorporating touchscreens to replace or supplement keyboard interfaces. The screens are often larger than the standard desktop computer display screen, and some versions are heavier devices that integrate the computer and wireless communications elements into a single, touchscreen-driven system.

These touchscreens are attached to the cart by movable hinges, and are usually designed for vertical and horizontal motion. This makes it easier for sharing information with patients, and for collaboration by nursing staff and other patient care providers; it’s a common sight on any hospital or rehab ward at shift change to see these carts being moved in and out of rooms.

The increasing use of touchscreens is not limited to the mobile nursing station: Ultrasound systems, drug dispensing carts and other systems have all become mobile, with the goal of reducing the time, effort and risk associated with moving patients from one location to another – instead bringing care equipment to their bedsides.

These touchscreens see very heavy usage throughout the day, as well as multiple users. Unlike desktop monitors and touchscreens that stay in one location, they are constantly moved, swiveled and adjusted. This kind of constant usage, by multiple people, can create significant demands on the hinge devices holding the touchscreens; the right hinge devices can help ensure long-term touchscreen operation that is efficient, ergonomic and reliable.

Constant torque: Holds securely at every position

The technical capabilities of the latest hinge technology provide industrial design engineers with new options to better integrate and support the use of touchscreens in healthcare applications. With positioning hinge technology, designers can define the operating effort required to move or position doors, display screens, safety shields and lights – virtually any mounted component that is opened, closed and/or moved.

For touchscreens, both on mobile equipment and in static applications, constant torque hinges are a proven positioning technology that provides multiple advantages for touchscreens.

Constant torque hinges provide both smooth operation and infinite positioning of touchscreens. This allows for intuitive movement of the screen that holds it at any point throughout the full range of motion when stopped. The amount of effort required to move it is just enough to respond to deliberate motion, while holding the touchscreen in place for more casual or touch interactions.

Positioning hinges, like Southco's ST Constant Torque Embedded Hinge Series provide constant torque in a compact package for smaller display mounting applications, such as mechanisms for handheld tablet operation. 

Traditionally, this capability is accomplished with clamping or latching mechanisms, which often do not provide the infinite positioning ability that a constant torque hinge supplies, or the smooth, flowing tactile feedback. In addition, a constant torque hinge provides one-handed operation, rather than pushing a button or flipping a lever to move the device.

This makes constant torque hinges the ideal solution for mounting touchscreens to both mobile equipment and stationary locations. The infinite positioning makes it easy and intuitive to move when showing the screen to others; the ability to hold the screen in place while the user taps icons, opens, resizes onscreen windows and enters data helps make the touchscreen an easier, more reliable interface.

Multiple options for multiple users

Constant torque hinges are available in a range of precisely defined holding strengths, so medical cart designers can select the one that ergonomically works best for how users are expected to interact with the screen. Constant torque hinges provide a very intuitive interaction, which is valuable for equipment with multiple users; it’s easy to figure out how to reposition the screen just by applying the right force, rather than figuring out where to flip a lever or push a button.

State-of-the-art constant torque hinges are also engineered for very long service life. With multiple daily users constantly moving and adjusting the touchscreens, this is vital: They provide very repeatable and consistent motion that lasts much longer than other hinges that use plastic bearings or wave washers to provide tension.

Display mounts, like Southco’s AV-D40 series contain integrated constant torque positioning technology that makes larger, heavier monitors feel lightweight and easy to position with one-handed operation.

While most touchscreens are the size of tablets or desktop monitors, some applications are beginning to use much larger, heavier screens, including systems with the computer and wireless communication hardware integrated into the unit. For these heavier devices, combining constant torque hinges with counterbalance technology can provide a more reliable, ergonomic solution. Counterbalance hinges incorporate heavy-duty counterbalance springs that store energy and release it when the screen is repositioned. They provide an excellent solution for applications where the element being lifted has significant weight.

Constant torque hinges are also useful in another, newly emerging application: the handheld tablet holder. Healthcare institutions are equipping medical professionals with handheld mobile devices to streamline on-the-job responsibilities. By allowing tablets to be carried from location to location, healthcare professionals can improve efficiency of daily tasks – taking patients’ food orders, for example.

However, it can be cumbersome to carry tablets around for extended periods of time, so manufacturers are creating devices designed with special mounts that allow the user to effortlessly support the tablet in one hand while entering data with the other. In the same way that constant torque hinging improves positioning of stationary displays, handheld tablet mounts designed with constant torque solutions allows the user to easily adjust the tablet to their own unique preference. When not using the handheld feature of the mount, the same mechanism can be used to affix the tablet to patient’s bed or to stand the tablet on its own – on a table for example, allowing the user to keep both hands free to perform other tasks when necessary.

Pre-engineered hinge technology speeds final design

Taking advantage of proven, constant torque technologies is a smart way to reduce designer risk while saving time and expense on R&D. If a design requires that an ultrasound touchscreen be able to tilt with one to two pounds of user effort, the designer has two options: They can dedicate their time to designing a solution that meets these operating efforts, or they can simply choose a solution that already has this feature designed in. Integrated torque technology provides peace of mind that the equipment is always going to satisfy the requirements of the application.

Pre-engineered touchscreen positioning technology designed for the demands of the medical environment offers many advantages:

  • Their reliability has already been validated both by the manufacturer and by other companies that have used them.
  • These components allow for more streamlined designs, imparting a sleek appearance, eliminating protruding parts and reducing labor costs for installation and assembly.
  • Pre-optimized solutions may be specified to match equipment size, operating effort, operating environment and color, further simplifying the design process.
  • Leading suppliers are now offering more compact constant torque hinges, engineered to fit more cleanly into thin profile applications.

Touchscreen technology is easy and intuitive, which is why its use in medical applications will continue to grow; the right hinge and positioning technology can help ensure that these devices are efficient and ergonomic, helping healthcare personnel care for patients in the best manner possible. 

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