Terry EspinerSince the arrival of unified communications, the private sector has been quick to take advantage of such technologies to increase the agility and efficiency of staff. More and more businesses have realised that by migrating to a single, converged network supporting IP (Internet Protocol) telephony, videoconferencing, video-on-demand and contact centres, it is possible to achieve productivity gains that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago.  

Eliminating the islands

As the NHS continues to evolve and implement new technologies, the adoption of this unified communications model will enable trusts to ensure that voice, video and data communications are integrated into a unified collaboration service, rather than functioning in isolation to one another. In many NHS organisations today it is still the case that IT staff run the data network and telecoms/facilities staff run the voice networks. This separation has, in some situations, led to video networks being implemented in isolation often limiting its availability and consequently, its effectiveness and value to the business. A unified approach can help overcome this by bringing together these ‘islands’, ensuring that video networks are utilised to their optimum effect.

Effective patient care

A unified communications approach can also help to deliver more effective patient care for staff working remotely. For example, it enables access to an on-call consultant who could offer immediate advice to an attending clinician. Consultants who live some distance from their hospital could have access to technology that would enable them to look at the patient’s medical records and/or current condition from home. An informed decision could then be made on the most appropriate treatment for the patient in the time it would take the consultant to get to the hospital. Technology has moved on to the stage where this flexible and agile approach to healthcare is readily available.

Out with the old, in with the new?

When considering telephony system upgrades or replacement projects, many NHS organisations look at simple dial-tone replacement. Whilst there may be an element of comfort with straightforward implementations like this, it is unified communications systems and the associated added value Internet Protocol (IP) enabled applications that will provide the incremental benefits such as collaboration and presence.

Collaboration applications enable clinical teams or speciality groups to meet virtually to discuss and share information and can also be integrated with high grade video systems. Presence provides an instantaneous view of how best to contact a colleague including desk phone, mobile or instant messaging. Both of these integrated applications can realise real benefits in a healthcare environment.

The service providers of the world are a good barometer of technological advancement and the benefits it can bring. Service providers are collapsing various networks and platforms onto a single IP network. There is no greater example than BT with its plans for the 21st century network to replace existing networks with a single IP platform. The introduction of technology to support effective communications, combined with changing working practices, will enable the NHS to become a more productive, collaborative and joined-up organisation.

The NHS is justifiably cautious when it comes to implementing new technologies, with information governance (IG) often being a major challenge. IG is rightly at the top of the agenda for the NHS, given the legal and ethical requirements to ensure confidentiality of patient data is maintained no matter where it is accessed. However, there are now processes and technologies, which we all use in our day-to-day lives that are available to the NHS, such as online banking and retailing. To take an example from the private sector, if the majority of FTSE financial institutions trust the integrity of IP communications to support the lifeblood of their organisations, it is a good indication that this technology has indeed crossed the chasm in terms of its ability to provide secure and confidential communications. Furthermore, organisations such as VoIP (Voice over IP) security consultancy, Miercom, regularly test equipment to ensure it adheres to industry-recognised security standards.

For the NHS to maximise its potential, ICT should have a higher place on the agenda at a trust level. The Wanless Report’s recommendations for a 4% increase in ICT spending by trusts emphasis the vital role that ICT has to play within healthcare. Only by ensuring that ICT is given support at the board level within trusts, and by it being seen as a crucial component of day-to-day NHS healthcare delivery, can facilities such as unified communications, that the private sector takes for granted, demonstrate their true value to the NHS. It will be interesting to see how the wider EU initiatives, such as “Transforming Public Services” and the more localised initiatives, such as the Department of Health directing strategic health authorities (SHAs) to produce development and funding plans for ICT services, will ultimately drive the NHS towards the deployment of unified communications.

Shining lights

Within the NHS there are some real shining lights; trusts that are making optimum and effective use of unified communications. The York and Selby NHS Trust is a great example of an organisation using technology in an innovative way to directly benefit the provision of healthcare. All NHS facilities in the area are connected to a Community of Interest Network (COIN), enabling the sharing of information across a number of interactive media, including video telephony, at minimal cost. Within the York and Selby COIN, GPs have more agility, availability and faster access to clinical and patient information. Clinical applications such as PACS are now available to clinicians across the SHA, enabling x-rays taken in York Hospital to be made available within minutes and sometimes seconds to other clinicians on the network.

What the future holds

The adoption of new technology within the NHS will continue to evolve in the long term. We will see clinicians and consultants who have lived with such technology from a very young age who accept it as if it is part of their DNA, and who will seek the ability to use the same technology to deliver effective patient care. It could clearly take decades before this generation is in a position to make decisions regarding what forms of technology are adopted. However, we are already seeing the first of these implementations taking place today in islands of excellence throughout the NHS.

We must recognise that the NHS is a vast organisation that employs 1.3 million people and that adoption of new technology in such an environment is often a major undertaking. In the short term, the full acceptance of collaborative ICT implementations within healthcare will remain a challenge, but those trusts that do embrace a unified communications approach will see improvements in terms of their overall performances and ultimately, better serve their patients’ needs.

Terry Espiner

Healthcare Sector Manager

Cisco UK