AmbulanceChristopher Small

Keeping a healthy connection in the face of the unpredictable is a tough challenge. The unthinkable has sadly already tested Britain’s public services recently following the London bombings bringing contingency planning to the fore.

As the Connecting for Health programme takes the NHS into the 21st century, communication networks have become intrinsic to patient care. Today’s networks carry vital applications that are making a big impact on increasing efficiencies across the health sector.

From the speed at which the UK’s ambulance services can respond to calls, to how effectively NHS trusts can meet their performance indicators, much of the NHS’ work is increasingly reliant on networks. A strong communications infrastructure is needed to run an ambulance service that handles more than a thousand calls a day or an NHS trust responsible for giving patient care to hundreds and thousands of patients annually.

Managing network capacity to meet daily demands is a challenge in itself for the health sector. In the face of a major incident, making sure that voice and data communications don’t crumble under the pressure is even harder – and even more important.

Public connections and perceptions

To achieve star ratings, NHS organisations must ensure an efficient and timely response to inbound enquiries. In the event of a major incident how NHS organisations interact with the public and maintain clear lines of communication becomes paramount.

Major hospitals, for example, can be expected to handle millions of inbound call enquiries a month. But when dealing with an emergency situation the surge in demand on contact centres can be overwhelming. If not managed efficiently, not only can this have a detrimental effect on public perception of the Trust, but increasing caller frustration during an incident can hamper the ability of a hospital to allay fears and maintain calm.

Accessing reliable, up-to-the-minute data is vital for handling emergency situations, but when an emergency happens as a bolt from the blue, getting additional contact agents to man the phones is neither practical nor cost-effective.

Advances in inbound telephony services have now made it possible for communications managers to have full and immediate control when managing incoming voice traffic. Organisations could take full advantage of non-geographic contact numbers, free to the caller; many health sector enterprises are moving towards these to help create a uniform face for their organisation to the outside world. These could go a long way towards removing the confusion of multiple external contact numbers for different NHS departments.

Managing the calls

Introducing a network-based, inbound call management infrastructure takes this a step further. Call centre managers can set-up pre-approved emergency call plans that can be activated remotely over the web in minutes. In the event of a major incident, intelligent networks can also automatically re-route calls to a disaster recovery site if there is telephony failure at the main site.

At any time individual call plans can be accessed and modified, putting control of voice traffic back into the hands of the organisation. Overflow plans can be instigated during an emergency and announcements can be simply uploaded giving live up-to-date information to public callers.

Callers ringing the wrong number for information and being asked to redial can be a common occurrence particularly when there is public confusion over an incident. More complex interactive inbound call management systems can also be used to help manage skills-based routing. This can be vital in reducing call-handling inefficiencies, by ensuring calls are routed to either the right department or to contact centre agents best equipped to handle the enquiry.

During emergency situations voice announcements can even be uploaded, freeing up contact centre staff to deal with more complex public enquiries.

Beyond emergencies

Although advanced inbound call management has major advantages during emergencies, it can also offer better ways of working in day-to-day operations. With virtual solutions on the market, organisations can access the benefits of these technology advances without having to make an upfront commitment in hardware.

For the NHS, finding ways of improving cost-effectiveness without compromising service quality is a constant challenge.

Voice traffic from callers and demand on data networks escalates during emergencies. But to ensure public accountability, health sector organisations need to ensure that their funds are not being wasted on an infrastructure that could remain redundant until the event of a major incident. Through considering intelligent network solutions NHS organisations can ensure they are prepared for the unthinkable before paying the cost before it is needed.

Christopher Small
Director for Public Sector, Telewest Business


Telewest Business Public Sector