Saskatchewan health authority dials up IP network

Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR) will spent the next few years using its Cisco/IBM IP telephony system to bring wireless access to its nursecall, security, and dictation systems, which an official said brings it up to speed with the many hospitals tapping into the IP telephony trend these days.

This is all a far cry from where the health authority was a couple of years ago, however.

Back in 2006, the communication systems of Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR) were all bunged up. The health authority was suffering from the common problem of too many disparate telephony systems competing with one another, inspiring many a headache for the IT managers responsible for them—especially when it came to their end-of-life.

PAPHR CIO Bruce Beaurivage said that there were a bunch of different telephone systems at different locations, including hospitals, homecare facilities, and mental health centres. Added into the mix was Nortel’s proprietary telephony system CompanionPhone coming to the end of its life, leading to a scarcity of replacement parts.

“The biggest thing was that when the systems failed, they’d often be down for a week, which left us vulnerable. And if you don’t have a phone system in a health-care system…” he said ominously.

Beaurivage started dreaming of a more unified communications system. He’d heard of other health organizations adopting IP telephony systems and unified communication strategies, a trend that’s spread like crazy in the health-care space.

Here in Toronto, for instance, the non-profit home and community health care organization Saint Elizabeth Health Care implemented last year a five-year, $6.5-million Cisco-based VoIP and IP telephony system from Telus to better manage their communications.

Over in Brampton, Ontario, the Brampton Civic Hospital has also reaped the benefits of a unified communications strategy . It splashed out $550-million last fall on a physical and technology upgrade that included an integrated communications network.

Said Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with the London, Ontario-based research firm: “The health-care sector was one of the earliest adopters and one of the widest adopters (of IP communications).”

“We wanted to get more value from an integrated communication strategy that would also fit with our strategy for integrating other networks with the system,” said Beaurivage. So, in early 2006, PAHPR put out a RFP, which was picked up by Cisco and Nortel (for the hardware), and IBM and SaskTel (for the delivery).

IBM was pushing the Cisco products, and it was this duo that eventually won out. Beaurivage cites the user-friendliness of the Cisco hardware as one of the major deciding factors. He said, “You could just deploy them directly to the end-user; they required a lot less support.” Cisco also had a price advantage over Nortel, he said. PAHPR went for an implementation of around 700 landlines and 100 wireless phones.

There were, however, some hiccups along the way during the implementation—between IBM and SaskTel, who were required to aid with the integration of the new products with the organization’s existing systems. Said Beaurivage: “They were cooperative, but suspicious of each other. It was unfamiliarity.” When problems cropped up, he said, the companies would sometimes try and pin it on the other, or defer responsibility to the other company.

But, in the end, the users were happy. They enjoyed the new features and the voice clarity, and were helped along by training on the new system, said Beaurivage. The system also improved efficiency—users can, for example, use four-digit direct dialing between a multitude of locations and numbers. The system has also reduced long-distance bills. The staff—including nurses and maintenance staff—have also really benefited from the mobile phones on the IP system. Moving staff has also been made easier.

“You can move people from office to office, and they can just plug in their phone and there you go,” he said. This will also come in handy if staff needs to be moved to any new buildings, which will all be outfitted with IP-based systems from now on.

And all these IP strategies will keep the health authority in good—and cutting-edge—company. Tauschek said, “It’s going to be a commonplace. Soon, (healthcare facilities without IP telephony) will be the exception.”

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