Crosstalk with Select Telecom (Fall 2010)

There are few places where reliable communication is more important than a hospital or medical group. At the most basic level, patients need to be able to reach medical staff to schedule appointments and follow up on treatments. Medical professionals must consult each other in order to provide the best care and make accurate diagnoses, and no doctor or nurse has the time to learn a complicated voicemail system. In addition, despite ever-rising costs in the healthcare industry, administrations are under pressure to increase efficiency as an aging population puts greater demands on our healthcare systems. Oftentimes, the burden lands on IT managers who struggle to correct problems throughout a complex communication system which is spread across many branch locations. In a fast-paced industry where lives quite literally hang in the balance, communication systems need to be simple, scalable, and flexible to enable medical facilities to operate more efficiently and provide better service to patients. This is where IP telephony comes in.

The main advantage of IP telephony over the traditional Private Branch Exchange (PBX) telephone systems which are used almost universally by businesses in the medical industry and elsewhere is simplicity. In a traditional system, a separate phone and voicemail system is needed for each branch location, plus separate circuits to network them together. Due to the complexity of the system, even simple moves to a different office or adding one phone require outside help from a vendor to implement.

With an IP-based telephone system, businesses can utilize their existing data network to connect people – even across multiple buildings or branch locations – to one, centralized phone system. The entire system is managed through software with a simple interface and does not require specialized knowledge of telecommunication systems to modify. With fewer “moving parts” the system is easier to manage and more reliable. When problems occur, they are easy to diagnose and solve and can generally be addressed by one IT manager, instead of requiring a team of experts or a service call to an outside vendor.

In addition, since they are software-based, IP telephony systems are easy to integrate with existing medical devices and systems, including (but not limited to) office productivity software like Microsoft Office, electronic medical records, nurse call systems, and other healthcare applications. For example, a medical office could use basic caller ID information to match the caller to patient files, giving staff all the information they need at their fingertips. This saves time by eliminating the need to ask the patient for their history or manually query a database, and allows for faster response to medical situations.

Integration of the phone system with common email software such as Microsoft Outlook helps staff to manage contacts and provides a single inbox for voice and email messages, eliminating the need to wade through layers of phone menus and prompts to quickly access pertinent information. This also minimalizes the training needed to get productive on a new system, letting doctors and nurses focus on the tasks at hand. After installing an IP phone system, Linda Swanson, CEO and Practice Administrator of Danbury Eye Physicians and Surgeons in Danbury, CT commented, “The programming and changes to the system are very basic. We didn’t need to go to school for a week or so. Select Telecom showed us how to do this and it’s simple.”

Another major benefit of IP telephone systems is their scalability. Since the system is so simple, businesses can upgrade and grow without major increases in cost. Basic maintenance like office moves or adding a phone can be done in-house, if desired, without requiring a call to an external vendor. The most common changes to the system can be made for any branch from one central location, so IT managers (or an external vendor) do not need to travel between multiple locations and can quickly update the system from anywhere. Growth is easier and cheaper since businesses can add one phone at a time as needed, instead of having to purchase an additional phone system which may be underutilized for some time while growth continues.

Finally, the added flexibility of IP telephony can help to improve productivity and collaboration across the organization. Using a simple interface, calls can easily be routed to wherever the recipient is located, without IT assistance. For example, doctors can forward calls to another office, a mobile device or even to colleague with just a few simple clicks from their computer. Features such as auto attendant can help medical groups to route calls more effectively, as was the case at Danbury Eye Physicians and Surgeons. “Turning on auto attendant allowed us to be more productive. The calls went to the correct department. The patients were handled faster and more efficiently. Using the automated system, the patients selected the correct department – i.e. scheduling appointments. The calls were put in a queuing system. Each person took the same amount of calls every day. Everyone seemed happier because they all shared the call volume load.”

IP telephony can facilitate cross-team collaboration, which can be particularly important when treating patients with complex, long-term medical conditions. With an IP system’s simple interface, conference calling is easier to initiate and integration with productivity software and medical systems makes sharing documents, diagnoses, and patient history a trivial task. According to Executive VP & CFO of Hudson Valley, NY-based Elant, Inc., Todd Whitney, after Select Telecom implemented a new IP telephone switch which provided “… 4-digit dialing between all sites, adding caller ID capabilities for all users and installing robust voicemail functionality” they found “improved productivity and quality of care benefits.” These types of benefits can be realized by medical and non-medical organizations alike when IP telephone systems are used optimally.

IP telephony can result in significant long term cost savings and improved usability, helping medical and other organizations to maximize their efficiency while also improving their customer service. A new IP-based phone system with centralized management for all locations can both improve the bottom line in the short term and contribute to significant long-term savings. In short, IP telephony’s simplicity, scalability, and flexibility can help hospitals, medical groups, and any other business looking to improve office efficiency adapt to the demands of today’s ever-changing environment.