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An RX For Hospitals: Communications Overhaul


Can a new telephone system save lives?

If you’re a hospital, the answer is yes. For years, John Peter Smith Health Network struggled with its outdated phone system and communications network. Now, it’s hoping to save money, and lives, through an upgraded communications system created by Irving-based NEC Corporation of America.

John Peter Smith Health Network in Fort Worth receives thousands of calls a day. And until recently, if you dialed in, it meant listening to hold music for up to fifteen minutes.

“So we know we were missing a lot of calls, and people weren’t able to get access to health care,” says David Mendenhall. Mendenhall is Chief Technology Officer at JPS, and it’s his job to monitor everything that plugs into a wall both at the main hospital and at more than 40 community health centers.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Stacy Boatman, who works in the JPS call center, monitors phone calls using software developed by Irving-based NEC Corporation of America.

JPS spent two years implementing electronic medical records, Mendenhall says, and after that, he realized the telephone systems and virtual environment needed a serious upgrade.

“So we’ve been playing catchup since that.”

Not Sexy, But Serious

Now, upgrading telephone systems doesn’t sound as sexy as creating digital records or using telemedicine, but Mendenhall says phone systems can save lives.

On any given morning, the central call center at JPS takes more than a thousand calls from clinics across Tarrant County. Answering those calls now happens within one minute, Mendenhall says, instead of nine.

“That means we’re able to call the physician as quickly as possible getting those services done.”

To cut wait times, JPS cut its traditional landlines, which weren’t reliable and would often go down with bad weather. They’re now switching to voice over internet protocol – or VoIP. VoIP takes analog audio signals and turns them into digital data to be sent over the internet. That means no phone company.

“Now we’re able to take the calls centrally here, and then route them over our wide area network. We’re already running data, our electronic medical record on that, and now we can run phone and we get a much more predictable phone call,” Mendenhall says.

The Installation

Installing the new internet protocol-based platform will integrate voice, data and video. And it’ll cost JPS about 800,000 dollars over three years. The hospital expects to save 70,000 dollars a year. Larry Levenberg is with NEC Corporation of America – the company that’s handling the massive upgrade of 7,000 phones.

Credit NEC
Larry Levenberg, vice president of marketing for NEC Corporation of America.

“At the end of the day it’s all about keeping their communications systems up,” Levenberg says, “And in a hospital environment you’re talking about lives and you’ve got to make sure that communications systems is up 100 percent of the time.”

Upgrading communications is also about preparing for the future of health care. NEC’s IP-based communications platform makes it possible for care providers to answer phones through their laptops, check their email for voicemail left in their office, and run high-bandwidth medical applications that are becoming more popular.

New Communications Technologies Trending At Hospitals

“Everybody wants to upgrade communications systems,” says Ritu Agarwal, professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Center for Health Information and Decisions Systems.

“Everyone recognizes the old ways of doing things, with pagers, is just inefficient. And you really won’t get the returns from investments in emr technology if you can’t move information from one place to another quickly.”

Agarwal reports in the Journal of Healthcare Management that U.S. hospitals waste over $12 billion annually as a result of communication inefficiency.

“But fundamentally a more efficient communications system can save one of the most valuable resources that any hospital has which is a doctor’s time and a nurse’s time.”

An upgrade doesn’t come without risks, Agarwal says. There’s often a big initial investment and a VoIP system does require a high-bandwidth network and a backup plan. Still, new healthcare models are creating financial incentives for hospitals to adopt new technologies, technologies that can coordinate faster, more efficient care.

Which also means less time on hold.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.