Find out what kind of efficiency improvements the Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative has achieved with its new unified communication system, which relies heavily on IP phones

Avaya UC helps patients reach doctors by phone

Two years ago, patients calling Group Health Cooperative in Seattle for medical advice had zero chance of getting their questions answered on the first call. Now that the cooperative has implemented unified communications, however, the chances are 71 per cent.

Back in 2007, in order to reach a care team, patients called a central number where someone would take a message, pass it on to the medical staff and, when someone would call back when free, says Group Health CIO Ernie Hood. “This led to a less-than-optimal experience for the customer,” he says.

Today, patients of a clinic trialing the new system dial into an automated call tree, punch in their patient ID, indicate that they want to talk to the care team, and are routed to the appropriate clinic where an actual doctor or nurse answers the phone. “Patients are pretty stunned,” Hood says.

The new functionality required both a hardware and software upgrade to the cooperative’s Avaya Inc. phone system, and the upgrade has also enabled features with other potential benefits, Hood says. For example, the customer service call center can get screen pops to access records needed to answer callers’ questions. And the group is piloting automated dial-out reminders to patients that tell them to take their medications or detail practices they should follow in order to address their particular ailments, he says.

Group Health had used Avaya phone gear for 20 years and felt the best move would be to upgrade its gear to flatten the network so that all 48 of its locations appeared to run on a single phone system, says Dave Ditzler, voice and data manager for the cooperative’s information services division.

About 30% of the phone system is now IP with between 3,000 and 5,000 VoIP phones in use. New IP gateways have been installed to drop calls that originate on TDM phones onto the cooperative’s Qwest Metropolitan Ethernet Services 100Mbps links among sites, he says. The rollout continues as new uses arise that can save money. “We work with the business units to try to create business cases around it,” Ditzler says. Prime targets are new facilities or old ones generating a lot of voice-related trouble tickets.

The group invested in an Avaya Voice Portal for its interactive voice response capabilities that route calls based on callers’ responses to prompts. It also bought Avaya’s Contact Center Express software to support routing of calls to clinics, he says, replacing a Pegasystems computer-telephony integration deployment that posed integration problems with the Avaya phone system.

Group Health also upgraded its main media servers from Avaya’s S8700 to S8720s, Ditzler says. No LAN upgrades were needed because desktops are already served with Gigabit Ethernet via Cisco switches that provide enough bandwidth for both voice and data, he says.

The improved patient access to clinical staff came with some pushback from doctors, who were assigned to do medical rounds on the phone. At the same time, their patient workload was cut in order to free up the time they spend covering the phone. The designated answerer fields questions for all the patients served by the clinic, Hood says.

Savings from the system are not readily quantifiable, Hood says, but there is a reduction in the number of patients who make appointments at clinics unnecessarily because they were unable to get their questions answered on the phone.

That means doctors are seeing fewer patients who don’t need office visits. “They can concentrate on more complex cases,” Ditzler says.

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