Wireless voice system gives hospital a quiet touch

North Carolina hospital deploys portable telephones over wireless network, cutting down noisy pages while boosting nursing care.

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When enough patients complained that the overhead paging system was bothering them, University of North Carolina (UNC) hospitals decided to put a sock in it.

The Chapel Hills, N.C.-based hospital eliminated noise from an antiquated intercom system -- and from protesting patients -- when it rolled out wireless handsets that provide a direct connection from bedside to caregiver.

In the old days -- about three years ago for UNC -- patients would call from their bedside to a receptionist who would find out what the patient needed. The receptionist would then page a nurse via the overhead intercom system in order to convey those needs to the caregiver.

The intercom system was disruptive to recovering patients, and it created inefficiencies among nurses because they had to communicate with their patients through a third party. A way to bypass the receptionist and intercom stage was needed, and the solution to the problem expanded on the hospital's existing wireless IP network that let doctors put patient information directly into laptops.

"Overhead phones are the biggest dissatisfaction in patient surveys," said Greg Fitts, telecommunication analyst with UNC Hospitals. With that patient feedback in mind, the organization looked into technology that would integrate with its existing telecommunications and wireless infrastructure. "This deployment was done to reduce noise and make nurses more efficient," he said.

The hospital's core network is substantially Cisco and includes about 100 Cisco 1200 Access Points (APs) deployed throughout. Also, there are two IP voice sub-nets, running off 22 Spectralink Gateways. An OAI Gateway and two SVP servers handle voice quality and prioritization. The lines themselves are delivered via PRI to a Meridian 81, and all of the physical equipment resides in the main switch room.

"We elected to use static IP addresses on every phone instead of DHCP. This takes one network component out of the mix for troubleshooting purposes," Fitts said.

The hospital is currently using Spectralink i640 phones but will transition to the smaller, lighter h340 model within a few months. Because the entire system is linked into the hospital's PBX, the phones operate like any landline telephone on the system.

"We have almost 300 phones deployed right now, mostly in hands of nurses and nursing assistants who are the direct caregivers," Fitts said.

Doctors aren't part of the staff taking advantage of the wireless phones' mobility because they don't like interruptions while they are spending time with patients, Fitts said. However, employees in the hospital's service sector, such as the IT department, are on board.

"As time has passed, the phones have gone from just nurses to people like me -- support people -- who can use the phones," Fitts said.

UNC isn't the only organization with an IT department that prefers familiar, but portable, handsets over cell phones, two-way radios and annoying intercom systems.

About one quarter of SpectraLogic's 300 employees -- mostly IT support, warehouse workers and line managers -- are on the move and need to be easily contacted by their co-workers. And being integrated with the corporate PBX is the most practical solution to the mobility challenge, according to Jeff Biley, vice president of information technology for Boulder, Colo.-based SpectraLogic, a data storage manufacturer and also a user of SpectraLink's wireless telephones.

"With this wireless approach, we are tied into the corporate network with our phone tied directly into our PBX. We have extensions and we are in the corporate directory and we are also tied into voicemail," said Biley. "We don't have to pay for cell phones for everybody and we don't have to have pagers."

SpectraLogic is comprised of three separate buildings, giving ample space for employees to find themselves out of shouting-distance range. "In the old days you would leave a voicemail and then get on the overhead page. But paging has dropped dramatically," Biley said.

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