Making house calls with unified communications

The seven healthcare facilities that make up Niagara Health System have seen many of their networking scars start to heal thanks to an ongoing unified communications implementation that is set to expand into new areas.

At one time, each unit in the group of facilities located in Southern Ontario had its own private branch exchange (PBX) and unique communication infrastructure, which called for seven different management approaches. After implementing the UC infrastructure, those disparate systems have been melded into one central setup, allowing the organization’s IT team to more easily tend to each hospital’s communications needs.

The Internet Protocol-based (IP) communications system, from Cisco Systems, has brought together onto one network the hospitals’ voice, video and data traffic in an effort to reduce costs and improve communications capabilities.

“In our IP telephony area, the system has given us a better handle not only on our costs across the network, but also the actual usage and capability, and scaling the functionality for our users in the various areas,” said Mark McDonald, Regional Director of IT for Niagara Health Systems.

The consolidation process has resulted in a number of benefits, according to Steve Lawrence, healthcare business development manager for Cisco.

“They had seven PBXs and seven voice mail systems, they had countless numbers of accesses out to the PSTN (public switched telephone network), which were all costing them a significant amount of money. They had huge costs around removes, adds and changes, as people in healthcare inevitably moved around from location to location,” he said.

Now, it has a common call-processing platform, a common voicemail platform, and a single call centre. “Whether you’re in St. Catharines or Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s a single-reach number for the constituents of the Niagara region,” he added.

An ongoing collaboration between the Niagara Health System, Cisco and Burnaby, B.C.-based telecom service provider Telus, the VoIP/unified communications rollout is set to expand into new territory. Near the top of that list is to extend the functionality to locations outside the typical medical environment.

“We understand that health care doesn’t just get delivered in a hospital, it gets delivered in the home and in long-term-care facilities, so how do we get all of these various stakeholders to communicate better?” asked Lawrence. “They’ve created an organizational structure that will be responsible for managing care within that region and wherever that care may fall.”

McDonald added that his outfit is working with home care facilities and is looking “very closely” at its Addiction Services arm, which has remote service offerings, as places to extend the network. “We definitely think we will be able to leverage the Cisco network to provide some of the remote access for them, and is part of the overall blueprint of what we want to do.”

Another way in which the System has benefited from the UC deployment is the ability for users to move from location to location and be able to communicate over their phone or computer with others on the network in the same fashion as if they were still at their home location.

“Physicians could one day be working at Hamilton Health, and tomorrow at Niagara Health, and unified communications gives them that ability to move from location to location, to log into a telephone, and now that phone becomes yours for the day,” said Lawrence. “It’s really streamlining the whole communication process. The ability to reach people is easier as they move throughout a health region.”

Also on the radar screen is increased collaboration and conferencing capabilities. McDonald said the Niagara Health System is looking to implement more videoconferencing technologies to better facilitate meetings amongst doctors and other employees.

“We’re getting a tremendous amount of demand from our physicians and nursing staff to have the anywhere, anytime medical and diagnostic information (available to them),” he said.

In addition, the System is working with Telus on a new wireless design blueprint that will be piloted later this year at Greater Niagara General and then rolled out to other facilities between 2008 and 2010. It will take into consideration the sensitive medical equipment such as diagnostic imaging and other oncology-type equipment that could potentially be affected by wireless traffic.

What makes this design so unique?

“It’s a combination of looking at the location of the access points as well as the frequency radius that could be used throughout the facilities,” McDonald said, adding that it will be heavily dependent on short-range wireless protocols such as Bluetooth.

While Niagara Health Systems’ example is one of progress and ongoing investment, from an IT-spend perspective, the healthcare market is “definitely a small player on the scale of all the other verticals,” according to IDC networking analyst Abner Germanow.

“But, that said, healthcare, because of some of the regulatory environments and (the need to) make sure that the right people are involved at the right time, there are entities within healthcare that have gotten very aggressive around IT and specifically around communications,” he said.

Germanow added that the unified communications market has only recently been defined by IDC and that it is still too early to do any in-depth comparisons of the vendors within the space. Cisco, however, is “clearly one of the leaders and are very aggressive on the technologies and they intend to be a market leader,” he said.