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Opportunities, Challenges Of UC In Healthcare

Penobscot Community Health Care had a problem. The Bangor, Maine, nonprofit, which provides outpatient medical and dental, mental health, and disease prevention services, was growing rapidly, and its outdated PBX-based phone system was unable to keep up. In response, it deployed a new unified communications system to connect its six locations. As employees began using four-digit dialing, dial-by-name, and powerful workgroup features, productivity and customer service improved, and PCHC was able to meet staffing needs more effectively.

Better yet, PCHC's funding board took note of the organization's increased efficiency and provided additional grants and financial support. UC helped the provider achieve its highest goal: improved patient satisfaction. "With the UC system in place, our practice has drawn closer together, and it appears unified, as though it's in one location," says Doug Kingsbury, PCHC's CIO, adding that the flexibility of the system lets the group manage and meet the specific needs of each healthcare practice.

However, healthcare groups also face some unique challenges when adopting UC. Practices need to allow medical staffs to focus on providing care--doctors generally have neither the time nor the inclination to learn a complex new technology. These organizations often have small IT departments and limited budgets, so it's important that new systems be easy to install and manage. Medical practices also are very security conscious. As business managers read about network breaches resulting in data loss, healthcare IT pros may have difficulty persuading them that putting calls between doctors and patients on an IP network is a good idea. Telecom groups protective of their turf may further this perception.

Reliability is another sticking point for healthcare organizations where life-and-death decisions are made daily, and large medical centers can face logistical problems as well: They're often built across campuses, with doctors' offices in one building, labs and orthopedics in another, and billing offices tucked away at an administration site. While this is logical from a patient-care perspective, in terms of communications it can be a nightmare if the campus has multiple, unconnected phone systems.

Here we'll outline four areas that can help CIOs make the business case for unified communications; in our full report, "Best Practices: IP Telephony in Healthcare Settings", we'll discuss technical and security best practices.

Wherever You Are

The most immediate benefit of UC is in unifying the communication system for employees and presenting a consistent corporate image to the outside world. With a VoIP system in place, handsets can be deployed across a campus that function the same in each building. After employees are trained on the phones and desktop software, which in our experience rarely takes more than 90 minutes, calls can be directed to a subset of staff members trained to answer in a uniform manner. Group members can be geographically dispersed and can log into their stations as a member of the front office or reception team, and log out after the shift is over, regardless of actual location.

UC's tracking and reporting features are also beneficial to dispersed organizations. Because it can track and report on usage, the UC system offers invaluable information for staffing and planning; for instance, Monday mornings may bring a spike in pediatric calls, therefore, IT could recommend increasing the number of operators, physicians, and nurses on call, either in the office or accessible via phone.

Better customer service is another key benefit. UC systems that present presence information enable an operator to know if a billing clerk is at her desk or whether a nurse is available to take calls. When a call is put through, a screen can pop up on the desktop telling the nurse that this patient has called twice this week already. Finally, UC systems provide logging to track where each call has been. For instance, if a patient has been through the operator, pediatrics, orthopedics, and is now being forwarded to billing, the person taking the call is aware of these transfers--critical as health centers, from smaller clinics to the largest hospitals, focus on measuring patient satisfaction.

Beyond the normal desire of any business to keep customers happy, health centers that get government funding are required to do regular surveys to gauge how patients rate the services provided. Scores are often measured using metrics, such as how long patients wait to be treated and how many transfers they go through when calling their physicians or administrative offices. Patients forced to dial an endless string of numbers or wait a long time to make appointments or inquire about their bills aren't going to be very happy when it comes time to take that survey.

Scott St. Clair and Keefe Bailey are with Datamart, a UC consultancy.
Write to us at [email protected].