Three Steps to Better Communications

By Chris Heim

A surgical team is making final preparations for a long-awaited kidney transplant. In the meantime, EMTs have been dispatched to the scene of a three-alarm fire at an apartment complex. Last night, five members of a high school pep band shared an undercooked pizza and are now in your hospital, recovering from food poisoning.

The transplant patient’s vitals are available, and a detailed report from the lab is ready. The ER nurse-manager, planning for a rush of injuries from the apartment fire, has paged additional on-call staff, and vital supplies are being ordered from central supply. Dozens of the band kids’ friends and family call daily, hoping to talk to them or see if they’re up for a visit.

An update arrives. The donor’s kidney has been harvested, transported to the OR, and readied for the waiting patient. Another update shows only a few injuries from the fire scene, so the ER staff can be downsized. The full transplant team is on-hand and the surgery has begun. The post-op team is alerted. Your call center operators respond quickly and patiently to each of the band member’s calls – and hundreds more like it every hour.

Every member of your staff is accounted for. You know who is on-call. Your hospital’s ability to respond to daily challenges such as these continues uninterrupted.

How do you know this? Your communications system has been keeping everyone up-to-date, and all schedules are documented accurately from a single, Web-based interface with very little need for operator input. This allows your call-center staff to focus on handling patient and family calls, while helping keep other key people around your facility connected and informed.

Communications and scheduling are crucial to every health care organization. Doctors, nurses, lab techs, and facilities staff all need to be in close contact to share critical patient information and schedules. Quick access to diagnoses, patient status, test results, and facility availability information can play a key role in ensuring the best levels of care and safety – and the most effective operations for your entire organization.

Unfortunately, the high quality of patient safety and facility efficiency described above isn’t replicated at every healthcare facility. According to a recent study by the Joint Commission, poor communication is the leading cause of death and serious injury to hospital patients, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A communications system that gets the right people to the right place at the right time can mean the difference between life and death.

There are three important steps to a good communication system: make sure your data is accurate, make the system broadly available to your staff, and make it easy to use. Each is important, and today’s leading Web-based communications systems put the solution within reach of every health care organization, from hospitals to long-term care facilities, from research clinics to first-response providers.

Make Sure Your Data is Accurate: Key to a web-based communication system is a single, centralized personnel information and scheduling database. All data resides on one robust system, saving the expense and hassle of buying, maintaining, and using multiple electronic and physical databases. Paper systems or static off-line documents can become almost instantly out-of-date. A Web-based system can integrate numerous calendars and address books and make updates quick and accurate.

Telecommunications personnel in many hospitals are often responsible for maintaining on-call schedules. Operators are also frequently in charge of contacting on-call staff when additional personnel are needed. Without a single data source, this can cause confusion in the smallest facilities and compound delays in larger ones, which might have dozens of operators, hundreds of departments, and thousands of on-call providers. Touchtone, menu-based phone systems have the same usability issues; plus, it is hard to use phone keys to quickly update schedules or even to find colleagues.

The process can be cumbersome and difficult to update in a paper-based or multiple database environment. Hospitals lose time and money attempting to maintain such systems because they involve inefficient procedures that take attention away from other calls, consume employee time, and lead to confusion when schedule or contact information isn’t accurate. Moreover, inefficient communication impacts patient care or slows responses.

Make the System Broadly Available: Web-based systems are often referred to as self-service portals because they allow authorized members of a company or institution to contact others without switchboard operators or other intermediaries. Self-service portals have been remarkably successful in businesses and institutions of all types and in disciplines of all types, ranging from human resources to business information. They’ve also helped enhance communications at the most prestigious health care organizations in the world.

Web-based communication systems place the database in the hands of the people who most need to use it: the facility’s staff. Using individual passwords, staff members can easily access the database using a standard browser. Paper calendars and directories become a thing of the past. Changes to an individual’s schedule or contact information can be input by authorized individuals or department, clinic, or telecommunications staff.

Authorized users can also view the centralized calendar, see which staffers are on-call in various departments, offices, and clinics, as well as see who is covering for absent staff members. Top Web-based systems store multiple calendars and allow sub-groups within a given calendar. They provide the capacity for different coverage shifts within the same day and to pre-schedule on-call assignments up to a year in advance. Users can see changes in real time, send and receive messages, download on-call schedules to their PDAs or cell phones, or receive an alert when two or more people are on-call for the same thing at the same time.

When using a self-service portal system, facilities are able to spend less time creating and maintaining on-call schedules – 140 hours less per month at a Wisconsin hospital system, for instance. The key to cutting back the time it takes to create and manage schedules is Web-based automation that allows for self-service.

Make Your System Easy to Use: Tracking where physicians, nurses, or other staff are working in a fast-paced environment can be frustrating and difficult when operators have to log all their movements. Operator systems depend on staff calling in and leaving messages as to their whereabouts. Hospitals still in the paper-based or off-line spreadsheet environment often rely on static listings that track which doctors and nurses are in the building and in what part of the hospital they are working. But if a physician is suddenly called to a patient’s bedside, it’s hard for operators to know where they are.

New Web-based communication and scheduling systems do a fairly simple thing – remove the operator. In many systems, staffers can send a page directly from a Web browser. The recipients get those messages in the manner they prefer, be it via telephone or an electronic text message.

In many systems, staff can page a specific provider or search the database by job title, department, work site, a partial name, an identification number, or a team affiliation. If a staff member is unavailable, the system automatically pages the person covering for that individual. It can also leave a message for the original recipient to pick up later.

Beyond the Basics: There are additional advantages to using Web-based communication and scheduling systems. Web-based scheduling systems – configurable and capable of incorporating new information rapidly – automate nearly every kind of scheduling. Registration for in-services or classes can be administered online, and there is no need for staff or physicians to contact operators for status reports or new schedules.

Web-based scheduling systems are the most efficient approach to hospital communications. They save time, money, and confusion by allowing telecommunications staff to perform other important tasks, such as answering inquires from current patients and potential customers. They empower employees and physicians to take charge of their own schedules. They add immeasurably to the communications structure of healthcare facilities while offering ancillary benefits, such as the ability to deploy pages and calls during times of crisis.

Clients notice a difference as well; dropped calls and call abandonment decrease. In addition, staff morale receives a boost, especially in the call center, as pressure to meet often-overwhelming demands declines and quality measurably improves.

Web-based self-service portals help create efficient, patient-centered, high-quality calendar and paging systems. Medical facilities that implement Web-based communications can experience increases in paging accuracy, faster response times, increased worker satisfaction, telecommunications savings, and increased patient care quality.

Chris Heim is CEO of Amcom Software in Eden Prairie, MN. For more information, call 800-852-8935 .

[From the February/March 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]