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Shop Talk: Bringing Communication Together

January 12, 2008
by Mark Wechsler
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As the number of communication mediums increases, healthcare workers can benefit from a unified approach.

In today’s information-intensive healthcare industry, communication systems are more complex than ever. Administrative and clinical teams routinely use multiple ways of staying in touch — whether by voice and video telephony, voicemail, instant messaging, e-mail, text messaging or fax. Most also have a corresponding assortment of “communication identities,” including an e-mail ID, instant messaging handle, and a variety of numbers for office and home phones, mobile phones, PDAs, and fax lines.

Add it all together, and there have never been so many ways of communicating. If left unresolved, this complexity makes it more difficult and time-con­suming to conduct business and concentrate on patient care. That can be a decided disadvantage when speed of information-sharing and decision-making can mean the difference in both patient outcomes and marketplace success.

Fortunately, there is a solution. New Unified Communications capabilities can give all users — from nurses at a patient’s bedside to senior healthcare administrators — the means to simplify, integrate and control all aspects of their communications, leading to more efficient and effective ways of working, and to improved levels of care.

Building business value: simplification

It is important to recognize that Unified Communications is not a single capability or application, but a set of capabilities that provides a simpler, more integrated, communication experience. For example, a single, easy-to-use Web portal can provide access to a full spectrum of communication tools, including messaging, confer­encing and telephony. As a result, healthcare workers can access a consistent set of capabilities regardless of the device or network at hand.

In the past, individuals using multiple commu­nication modes would need to manually switch between applications, logging off and on as they went. In the greatly simplified world of Unified Communications, the process becomes far more seamless. You are able to receive and launch all forms of communication — person-to-person calls, e-mails, multimedia Web sessions and video conference calls, voicemails, instant messages and faxes — through a single device of your choice.

Unified Communications applications built on industry standards like Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) allow “on the fly” transition from one form of communication to another. For example, a physician can send important patient details to a colleague as an encrypted instant message from a laptop PC, while launching a conference call with a specialist and a nurse by clicking on names in a buddy list or directory. A few more clicks can turn the call into a desktop video conference.

Building business value: integration

Unified Communications also gives healthcare workers the flexibility to convert information into different forms so they can access and share information more efficiently and effectively. Using speech access applications, for instance, they can listen to incoming e-mails via mobile phone, view incoming faxes on a PC, manage schedules and appointments or respond to an e-mail with a .wav file. Patients are able to use self-service tools to schedule an appointment or access test results, whether they prefer to communicate via Web, phone or mobile device.

Visual voicemail can significantly increase the productivity of mobile healthcare users. That means a healthcare worker on the road or on the move within a facility can view a list of incoming voicemail messages and then listen to them over the device of choice. The list shows the sender, time and length of each message, and allows them to be listened to in any order. Messages are automatically downloaded “in the background” so users don’t need to spend time dialing in and logging onto the facility’s voicemail system. Voice messages can be accessed in multiple ways — whether through an e-mail client, mobile device or Unified Communications portal.

Alarm and notification applications can be integrated so bedside calls and code alarms are transmitted directly to a wireless phone or PDA, eliminating the need for overhead intercoms. And for better-informed decisions, patient care records, test results and orders can be transmitted to physicians wherever they are via the device of their choice.

Unified Communications also makes mobile communications more intelligent. For example, a healthcare worker can transform a mobile device into an extension of an office phone and “empower” the device with core IP telephony functionality. That means members of your clinical or administrative team can be easily reached through a single number, regardless of where they are. They can access directories and route calls through your organization’s network and can use advanced features such as multiparty conference calling, call transferring and abbreviated dialing, just as if they were at their desk. That means they have ready access to the tools they need to reach the appropriate personnel and better serve patients and their families.

Building business value: control

Another fundamental attribute of Unified Communications is the ability to control the “when,” “how” and “who” of communications. For example, under certain circumstances, a physician might choose to receive a message in any format and at any hour, but only if it comes from the charge nurse or a member of his practice. While conducting rounds, the same physician might choose to be unavailable or to allow only e-mails or instant messages to be delivered.