Maintaining a Family Feel with Patients Through Rock-Solid Communications (and the Network to Support It)


I was born in Jerseyville, Illinois, so accepting the job of IT Director at Jersey Community Hospital (JCH) was a homecoming. I grew up with a lot of the people who work and volunteer here. My friend’s mom works the front desk as a volunteer. She was like a second mother to me growing up, and when she greets me with that big smile, I feel I'm working with family. Even many of my elementary and high school teachers volunteer here, too. Walking down these halls brings back a lot of memories. More importantly, it also reminds me that I've so much to give to this town.

JCH is the largest employer in the county, with more than 425 people spread out across our eight clinics and multiple locations. Our clinics see over 100,000 patients a year as well as over 80,000 patients at our hospital.

Jersey Community is near and dear to my heart. You're not a number when you step through these doors. You're Shane. You're Andrea. You're Brooklyn. The staff here won't just ask how you've been. They'll also ask about your wife because she plays cards with one of the nurses every other Thursday. Communication is a big part of that family feel, and that's why I was shocked to find that our telephone system was such a mess when I started working here two and a half years ago.

Addressing a Top-Five Patient Complaint

Calling to the desired location in the hospital was not an easy task. We were using legacy hardware and software. I'm talking a decades-old Nortel system that was purchased used over 15 years ago. This system was so old that we often had to buy parts off of eBay since we couldn’t find them anywhere else. 

If a patient called in to book an appointment with a specialist and then inquired about an invoice, we couldn't transfer them over to billing. We had to give them a separate number to call. You could be talking to a patient who wanted to speak with the person working next to you, but you couldn't route them to your colleague—you had to ask them to call back.

Trying to contact a hospitalized family member was no easy feat. If you were trying to reach your grandmother and you didn't know the room number she was in, good luck finding her. There was no direct inward dialing. You couldn't call up a central number that would connect you to her room.

Our phone system was a top-five patient complaint. Our staff was frustrated with it, too. But the tipping point came when we realized that patients weren't scheduling procedures because getting through on the phone was too complicated. Call this number, hang up, and call this number, sorry you have the wrong department, please call this number. It was never ending. So, our CEO created a new centralized scheduling department to deal with the crisis. Sadly, our telephone system wasn't up to the task. Patients were still unable to get to the right place the first time. So, they were calling back three or four times and getting routed to wrong departments or voicemail. I’m sure that many of them decided to call other hospitals due to their frustrations. 

Legacy phone system getting to EOL? Don’t just upgrade to a new one. Build out a better foundation for the future.

Others might have thrown money at the problem. We could have tried just to upgrade the phone system and install a new one, but I knew that wouldn’t work. We didn't have a network that could handle a new VoIP setup, and so we had to build the foundation that linked locations across the state, including clinics in Greene, Jersey, Calhoun, and Madison counties. We had to find a way to connect all our clinics and get them talking to one another, and we needed to start from scratch.

Starting from Scratch with a Trusted Partner

We took the usual RFP route and narrowed it down to three potential solutions that best met our needs, but one combination stood out: Cisco and Secure Data Technologies, an O’Fallon, Illinois-based Cisco Gold Partner. They came in and said, "Here's what we have to offer: This is how we can help."

When I started at JCH, I had vendors knocking on my door all the time. One day, a woman named Simonne dropped in with a plate of cookies. Name an IT person who doesn’t like cookies, but she was trying to make a point. Secure Data is a family owned and operated business, and they treat everyone who works for them as part of that family. Unfortunately, far too many of the bigger shops treat their customers like numbers and dollar signs. 

It was the right call then, and it is the right call now. Secure Data has never steered us wrong, and when issues have arisen, they have always kept us in the loop. The fact that it is a family-run business is even more important to me now. When I worked for St. Louis University, it was a counterpoint to the anonymous approach of our other suppliers. At the hospital, it is a reflection of the way we do business here.

As is often the case, the biggest stumbling block was cost. The hospital had a far smaller budget for the upgrade than I was used to working with at the university. At first glance, I thought I'd been given too little money and asked to do too much. There was no way we could afford the hardware we needed to upgrade our network and the software to monitor it. I looked at Cisco Meraki and thought, "This is the right hardware. But how much are we going to have to spend on software?"

When looking for networking solutions, don’t fall victim to sticker shock. Look at the total cost of ownership.

I hadn't realized that Meraki was a platform that integrated wireless LAN, SD-WAN, security, and switching hardware with cloud-based dashboard analytic and management software. I have to admit that my focus for most of my career was servers, and so I had to play catch-up on the networking side of things. I was blown away by the value and the capabilities that Cisco Meraki brought to the table, an all-in-one package. Having everything together made it fit within our budget.

Building End-to-End Connectivity, Security, and Telephony

Meraki comes with all the tools we need to set up, monitor, and manage our wired and wireless networks. Our two MX100 security appliances provide high-availability access to our data centers, and a single dashboard allows us to test, configure, and secure network elements. There's even a cable tester. We no longer have to physically inspect a switch to confirm whether the wiring is faulty. To secure ourselves from external threats, we've also incorporated Cisco Umbrella, the world's first cloud-based secure internet gateway, and Cisco MX83 firewalls. These technologies allow employees and patients using mobile devices to log into our wireless networks while keeping the bad guys out.

Cisco's single-vendor solution ensures seamless end-to-end connectivity and security, but none of this would matter if our patients were still having difficulty calling the hospital and our clinics. Fortunately, Cisco Unified Communications Manager allowed us to ditch our Nortel landlines for state of the art VoIP telephony and video conferencing. We've also added Z3 teleworker devices so our radiologists can log into the hospital's network via VPN to view medical images from their homes.

We now have systems that are now interconnected with four-digit dialing across the hospital, billing office, and many of our clinics. If someone at one of our clinics network wants to dial my extension, they can punch in my four-digit code. If someone’s calling from outside the hospital, they can dial the main number and ask for my four-digit extension, or a direct line that connects to that extension. No matter how they're calling in, our patients will always get through to the number they're trying to reach. 

Smoothing Everything Out and Adding Redundancy

The physical transition to our new phone system was successful, but we hit some snags along the way. One of the things we discovered was that doctors don’t always have time to check their voicemail and patient satisfaction is a top priority. So now if they don't pick up a call, it auto transfers to their nurse's, and then the two can use Cisco Jabber collaboration apps to discuss the patient file. Best of all, it’s HIPAA-compliant.

We also had problems with callers not getting through to some numbers. For example, patients were getting busy signals when they tried to contact one of our clinics, which happened to be one of the most active in our network. It turned out we had set it up to handle eight calls at a time and at times they were receiving over 15 calls at a time. With Cisco Unified Communications Manager, we were able to boost that number to 20 through a dashboard, and that solved the problem.

Remember our CEO’s goal, centralized scheduling department. His vision of a centralized scheduling department so that patients could call instead of calling a clinic, a department, or a doctor to book an appointment or a procedure, is another step closer to reality. Soon, our patients will be able to call our centralized scheduling department. Again, you only have to remember one number instead of seven or eight. We've also turned off call assistance, and callers can now talk to a human being instead of being stuck in a queue. We keep that family feel by ensuring that our patients can always connect to a person. 

A final but crucial feature is redundancy. With Meraki, we have virtual servers in two different locations. Our disaster recovery setup means our IT and phone systems can be brought back online from our secondary data center if our network here crashes. As a final backup, we also have landlines in our emergency department, our surgery rooms, and other critical areas. Should the hospital experience a power failure that takes out our VoIP capabilities, our various services and departments will still be connected to each other and to the outside world.

Providing Better Healthcare for the Entire Community

We have laid the foundations for the future. JCH now has a network that is HIPPA compliant, as well as the hardware and the reporting tools to protect us from security breaches. The telephone system is the beginning, and our next step is telehealth. We just ordered Cisco teleconference room kits for some of our clinics and our hospital. These will serve for training and meeting purposes to start, but they will also prepare the groundwork for remote doctor-to-patient communication.

Our specialists will soon be able to log into their laptops and connect to bedside telepresence carts that hook into our MX300 collaboration hubs. A few months ago, this was a distant possibility, but now we're on the cusp of another quantum leap in our ability to provide healthcare to this community.

Jersey Community Hospital has given me the best possible homecoming. This organization and everyone who works or volunteers here has allowed me to give back to my hometown. I'm proud to have worked with Secure Data Technologies and Cisco to make it easier for everyone in the county to connect to the healthcare services they need.

I’m also happy that people can now reach hospitalized family members by calling our main number. The lack of this simple convenience caused so much grief over the years. Technology should never get in the way of people keeping in touch. Thank goodness we've finally found a way to unite everyone in a quest for better health.