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Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

Unified communications can save time, cut costs and improve collaboration, but the tricky part is choosing the right combination of tools.

Is There a Doctor on the Device?

What you really want are users who push for a UC project, says Michael McTigue, CIO of Saint Barnabas Medical Center. The hospital group--which provides cardiac services, burn treatment and organ transplant among its offerings--wanted to speed up the time for doctors, nurses and technicians to reach each other. The time-honored pager method was no longer good enough. Indeed, the archaic process of dialing a beeper, hoping the page goes through, waiting for the recipient to get it and call back slowed communications, and therefore reaction time during critical situations, McTigue says.

Fifteen minutes might pass before a physician could reach someone in the telemetry group to order machines to monitor a given patient's heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. "Everyone was looking for a communications vehicle that would give better turnaround time," he says.

Walkie-talkies, while quick, didn't pan out because the crackly speakers made the hallways noisier and they ran through a lot of batteries.

In March 2007, Saint Barnabas launched a pilot of Vocera Communication's badge devices. The 2-ounce rectangles are worn on a lanyard around the neck or clipped to a collar or pocket. They allow hands-free voice communication. A nurse might press the activation button and speak into it the name of a physician who is needed to check a medication order. Via a wireless network, the device pings a database to look up the doctor's name and relay the call. The doctor taps his button and speaks to respond.

Saint Barnabas spent $500,000 for devices and software for 450 concurrent users, starting with the telemetry group. That 15-minute wait time plunged--responses now take nine to 15 seconds, McTigue says. Such dramatic results convinced the hospital to get as many of its 3,000 employees on the system as quickly as possible. Within nine months, the hospital spent $250,000 to add another 300 concurrent users, giving 2,700 employees access to the system.

IBM managed the initial training, helping new users enunciate and speak directly into the Vocera device. In the emergency room, where there's more noise than in other parts of a hospital, the staff uses headsets rather than dangling the device at chest level. The training helped get Saint Barnabas to a high rate of calls recognized and completed on the first try: 83 percent. Seventy percent is more typical, McTigue says proudly.

Along the way, the hospital worked with IBM, Cisco and Vocera to identify and fix wireless dead spots in stairwells, elevators and the lead-walled radiology area. They had to fiddle with wireless access point configurations to get all areas hot. "If you don't have tight infrastructure, the application will get a bad name," he warns. The system works only on campus but the hospital is testing a Vocera smart phone with the same capabilities for off-campus use.

Yearly operating costs are $75,000 to $85,000, mainly for Vocera software maintenance, he says. The hospital expects to connect 1.5 million to 2 million calls through the system, eliminating the need for one full-time switchboard operator, according to McTigue.

The hospital has saved another $70,000 by getting rid of its backup phone system used during power outages. The wireless Vocera system replaces a traditional dedicated circuit for that old emergency system.

Payback from UC projects doesn't typically come from savings on networking equipment because those prices are low already, says Lewis of Strategic Intersect. But hard returns can be calculated: Obviously, meeting virtually can cut travel costs. Setting up call center staff to work from home, but access integrated voice, e-mail and document capabilities frees up physical room at the company for other uses.

Softer results, Lewis says, can also be important: By merging voice mail, e-mail and BlackBerry messages, your sales organization may save 30 minutes every day. How valuable is that in productivity and morale?

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