Modernizing Patient Communications for World-Renowned Care: The Brooklyn Hospital Center and Cisco Contact Center Story


The Brooklyn Hospital Center (TBHC) was founded in 1845. It’s safe to say that we are a fixture in the community, but being a historic institution doesn’t mean we’re old-fashioned. In fact, we’re a modern teaching and research hospital that operates dozens of clinics at our Downtown Brooklyn campus, our eight satellite outpatient clinics, and many private practices and doctors' offices.

At TBHC, our mission is to be a destination provider of top-quality and compassionate healthcare to the people of Brooklyn and Greater New York. The core values that drive our work are community service, respect, efficiency, accountability, teamwork, and excellence. We serve a large and diverse population with unique requirements in respect to healthcare needs and services.

This diverse population interacts with the hospital in many ways, but often that interaction begins in one area: our contact center. 

Struggling with an Obsolete Contact Center

We strive to provide the best and most up-to-date care to every patient and member of the community we serve, but an organization as big as ours sometimes falters. When we realized that our contact center was not providing an effective environment for our agents to provide an exceptional level of service to our patients, we knew it was time for a change.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. TBHC's 20 contact center agents are a team of dedicated professionals, but they were working with old technology. They were not equipped to handle the needs of the patients who were calling to schedule, change, and cancel appointments. It was a mess for both our staff and our patient population.

The hospital as a whole was using seven different phone systems which were impossible to manage all at once. We were spending all of our collective time putting out fires instead of helping our agents communicate efficiently and accurately with our various clinics and patients. The core of this system was a legacy Nortel telephone system that amounted to 3,000 wired phones, all of which were 20 to 30 years old.

Multiple disparate systems means IT spends their time putting out fires instead of enabling your workforce. @CiscoCollab

This was the same gear we had in the contact center. It lacked sophistication, having no way to see where call traffic was coming from or where to route it to. This missing information led to redundancies and inefficient use of resources. For example, our agents handled scheduling for dozens of clinics and specialists, but could not provide the personalized experience our callers expected because they had no visibility into who the caller was trying to reach. Therefore, they had to answer with a generic, “The Brooklyn Hospital Center” greeting. This wasted time, prolonged interactions, and just wasn’t a friendly experience for callers. 

There wasn’t even a simple way to route callers based on their language preference. This was particularly troubling when you consider the diverse population we serve. Sometimes, a call would come in to an English-only agent from a Spanish-speaking patient. After a mutually confusing initial encounter, the agent would put the customer on hold and yell across the room for someone who speaks Spanish to pick up the call. It was just as frustrating and disruptive for agents as it was for our patients. We knew that we had to prioritize patient experience and that our contact center needed to be the starting point for those efforts.

Finding a Solution that Better Serves Patients and Contact Center Agents

As The Brooklyn Hospital Center's Director of Technical Services, it was my job to find a solution that would improve the situation for both our patients and our contact center team. We had several priorities in view, with patient experience top of mind. It was simply unacceptable that patients were put on hold without knowing the length of their wait time. It was even worse when calls were dropped. Also, we needed a call flow that routed patients to an agent who spoke their language and who already knew what clinic, department, or specialist they were calling into. 

Proper call routing = unparalleled customer service. Stop guessing, start serving. @CiscoCollab

In terms of the implementation within the contact center, we required a centralized solution that was easy to use and maintain. Our hardware was ancient. With our previous setup, agents could only retrieve voicemail by picking up the handset on their desks. And they only knew of a message if they were sitting at their workstation. There was zero flexibility.

A final consideration was the avoidance of cost overruns. Our contact center is a 9-to-5 operation that mostly handles scheduling. Still, our previous setup made it impossible for our agents to handle all the incoming and outbound calls, requiring us to supplement our agents with third-party outsource vendors who charge by the minute. Let me tell you; it was starting to add up.

"It was simply a matter of getting our leadership's approvals to switch to a new infrastructure and then adopt a solution we already knew and trusted." Cisco @CiscoCollab

The right solution was staring us in the face. We were already using Cisco Unified Communications Manager with 40 people in our IT department, but the contact center was still running on old Nortel/Avaya equipment. We had laid the groundwork to consolidate our communications, but we had to take it hospital-wide. Only then would we provide agents with the environment they needed to properly serve our patients. 

It was simply a matter of getting our leadership's approvals to switch to a new infrastructure and then adopt a solution we already knew and trusted. This would be the beginning of consolidating our disparate systems with Cisco Unified Communications and Contact Center Solutions.

A Speedy Transition to our Cisco Contact Center Architecture

Using Cisco Unified Communications Manager in-house for our IT team was one thing. Deploying a solution to meet the needs of patients calling into 40 different clinics, departments, and specialist offices was another. We knew what we wanted, but we didn’t have all the answers lined up.

To ensure best practices, and the selection of the appropriate components, we sought out a Cisco partner who specialized in contact center solutions, and found one in ShoreGroup. They helped with project management and designed the solution that best suited our needs: Cisco Unified Contact Center Express (UCCX). The process was streamlined and relatively swift with respect to projects of this scope.

Our goal was to launch both Cisco UCCX and our new patient record system, EPIC, at the same time. We signed off on the design in mid-January 2018, and work started in February. Three months later, all of our 40 outpatient clinics were converted from analog to the new Cisco Contact Center. This overhaul included all of our phone trees, recordings, and paging capabilities. It was a massive transformation in those short three months. We then moved into our next phase of vetting call flows and integrating apps that would expand our capabilities. 

We added Acqueon, a Cisco partner, to manage outbound multichannel communications, along with an SMS gateway provider. Finally, we integrated our scheduling system into EPIC. This integration was one of the key reasons we went with Cisco. Integrating our EMR and scheduling systems was a game changer.

I have to say that ShoreGroup and our on-site team at TBHC were stellar. We were dealing with several vendors in different time zones, but the IT department put all of our resources behind the project. We did a lot of testing and then rolled out the new solution.

I was shocked at how quickly our contact center staff became proficient with the new system. I thought it would take longer, but within two weeks everyone was comfortable and using the technology. Our agents knew they could look at the screen and see where the call was coming from and where it was going. It was that easy.

It All Adds Up

With any new implementation, there will always be a few surprises and lessons learned. One issue we spotted immediately was our inability to move ahead with SMS campaigns. Simply put, we’d never asked our patients for their cell phone numbers. We’d put in phone numbers, of course, but we’d never required patients to specify whether these were landlines or mobile phones.

What had been a minor oversight in the past ended up having huge implications for our new system. Now, our agents always ask callers for their mobile numbers. 

We’re not only taking appointments with our new Cisco Contact Center solution, but we’re also moving into exciting new communications channels that will generate new business opportunities for TBHC. We’ll be doing things like annual health checks by messaging patients on their birthdays to remind them to come in for a physical. We can remind mothers when their newborns are due to be vaccinated, or send out alerts about flu shots. We can do this through voice and SMS messages.

We also have at-risk patients who need to keep up with their medications. We can send them reminders to pick up their prescriptions at the pharmacy. We can automate callbacks and feedback mechanisms. The potential is huge from both a patient care and business perspective. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In terms of watching over all of this, we’ve also installed Calabrio, a Cisco partner, for workforce management software. Our supervisors can listen-in on calls and then coach agents to ensure an optimal patient experience. They can also monitor the hold queue and even set staffing levels according to call volumes. These are very simple things on their own, but taken together they greatly enhance the power and flexibility of our contact center operations. It’s incredible that we now have a call center solution that integrates so well with other providers. 

Lessons for the Future

Our next step is to put together a capital campaign to further consolidate our IP telephony to the Cisco Unified Communication Manager for the entire hospital. We’ve already gone from seven telephone systems to two. In the future, who knows, maybe we can add a system that recognizes voice commands using technology like smart speakers. With the right platform in place, we can begin to think about the unique ways we can use technology to delight our patients with personalized service.

While we still have the hospital-wide rollout ahead of us, we’re already impressed by what we’ve seen. Improving patient experience, our guiding star, has already been achieved. 

We’ve created that single touchpoint between our hospital and the patient. They no longer need to call three different numbers or spend countless minutes on hold. It also provides our agents with the insights to customize the call experience. If a patient is calling for the cardiology department, they can now be greeted with a friendly, “Hi, this is the cardiology department, how can I help you?” so callers know they’re in the right place. For our agents, it’s an easy and efficient way to provide a personalized touch. For our patients, it’s a small change that has a lasting impact on their experience with the hospital.

In the end, everything comes down to providing an exceptional patient experience. All other metrics and outcomes are secondary. I could go on for hours how Cisco transformed our contact center operations and how smoother things have become on our end.

However, the only thing that really matters is that it is now easier for our patients to talk to The Brooklyn Hospital Center, and play a more active role in their healthcare. We can also respond to them in meaningful and new ways. What better way to give everyone in the community the quality healthcare they deserve?