Unified communications, VoIP link hospital's systems

Unified communications and VoIP helped one hospital network overcome communication hurdles.

Unified communications and VoIP in a hospital environment can now mean the difference between life and death, said

Alberto Kywi, CIO and vice president at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital (SBCH).

"If your telephone switch fails, all of your communication with the world ends, and that's a bad place to be if you're a hospital," Kywi said.

A communications system upgrade recently became a necessity when aging equipment was teetering on end-of-life status, he said. SBCH comprises four campuses -- three hospitals and an administrative building.

"At the hospitals, we had old legacy telephone switches that were near end of life," he said, "and they couldn't be supported or maintained."

The need to replace equipment and accommodate the administrative building became imperative.

Disparities among the systems within the various buildings meant, however, that SBCH required a cost-effective telecommunication system that could support analog, digital and VoIP stations, along with an IP WAN. In addition, Kywi said, the hospital wanted to unify communications to enhance employees' and patients' ability to communicate more fluidly and efficiently.

"Improving interactions between administrators, medical staff and patients through unified communications enhances patient care and reduces our costs, making it a win-win for everyone," he said.

The hospital created a four-year telephony plan focusing on buying connectivity equipment and expanding into other forms of communication beyond just the telephone. The goal of the plan was to converge voice and data.

SBCH went with solutions from Siemens Communications to develop and implement the system. Kywi said the hospital needed a level of flexibility and integration between old and new equipment, not just rip and replace, so older equipment could be phased out incrementally as new equipment was brought in.

A switch was replaced at one hospital, and a new switch was installed at the administrative building, setting up the shell of the system. Later, all four campuses were linked together and voicemail was integrated.

"We hope to have a mix of VoIP, digital and analog across the four campuses," Kywi said.

Using Siemens' converged HiPath 4000 and HiPath 3000 IP systems enhances communications continuity and improves user collaboration and productivity. It gives the hospital the ability to expand quickly and easily in order to support more users and applications over the IP network. The interconnection of these systems also creates a single-system image with a uniform dialing plan to improve communications among staff and with patients.

On top of that, a HiPath Xpressions Unified Communications tool consolidated SBCH's messaging architecture. Overall, the new system creates a seamless and uniform collaboration environment with instant access anywhere, anytime to people, schedules and clinical information, according to Neil Harrington, Siemens' sales director and enterprise general manager.

Kywi said the new voice network can integrate communications into the hospital's operations processes. Also, the HiPath 3000 and 4000 network can improve the quality of patient care; support security, privacy and compliance requirements; align workflows to operate more efficiently; and leverage technology to improve access to patient information.

Kywi said the new voicemail system and VoIP system creates one-number access, meaning that a cell phone, desk phone, PC and softphone can all be reached by a single number, promoting efficiency and allowing immediate access to staff when they are needed.

Along with updating the VoIP and unified communications systems, the hospital has also deployed Vocera communication tools commonly used in clinical environments, Kywi said. Vocera makes small wireless devices that loop around users' necks for hands-free communication. The system uses the VoIP network, he said, and can be used internally or as a communications link to the outside.

"All this requires is a VoIP background," Kywi said of the communications initiatives at SBCH.

He admitted, however, that there was some reluctance to rely on VoIP for internal and external communications. Unlike conventional telephones, VoIP requires electricity to run. If power goes down in a hospital and the phone system goes with it, it could be catastrophic, especially because the network would be down as well.

"It's really a matter of developing a level of comfort with it," Kywi said.

In the end, however, the benefits far outweigh the fears, he believes.

SBCH saw the communications upgrades as a business necessity, not as an opportunity for ROI, he said. It has realized savings here and there, but that was not the focus of the project.

One area where the system justifies its cost is ease of management, he said. IP phones can be managed online or remotely, making moves, adds and changes much easier. And as the hospital plans for new facilities, that becomes a major factor.

"As we plan and construct new facilities," Kywi said, "we can protect our investment by not having to buy all new equipment."

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