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VoWLAN system takes after sci-fi

Communications badges that made calls were once a fantasy, but now an Arizona hospital system is using them in a unique voice over Wi-Fi system to keep caregivers in constant contact.

Fans know that in the more recent iterations of the venerable sci-fi series Star Trek, talking to a distant colleague is as easy as tapping a lightweight chest badge. For the staff at the John C. Lincoln hospitals in Phoenix, that kind of convenience is no longer fantasy.

 Our server, which is where our speech recognition engine is running, interprets voice commands like 'Call Brent Lang' to instantly connect to the badge of the person I'm trying to reach.
Brent Lang,
vice president of marketingVocera

Until recently, the 3,200 employees at Lincoln's two facilities had no organized method of campus-wide communication; nurses were often heard shouting out names in hallways, adding unwanted noise and stress to what can often be a hectic environment.

Today, thanks to a Wi-Fi VoIP system from Vocera Communications, which looks like something one might find in the 24th century, coworkers can keep in touch faster than you can say, "Beam me up, Scotty."

Impulse power

About a year ago, Lincoln's IT staff began searching for a voice communications system that could keep doctors, nurses and other hospital staff in constant contact during their shifts, whether they were down the hall or across town.

"From a clinical standpoint, we needed a way to improve the response time for patent needs," said Rob Israel, vice president and CIO for Lincoln. "We were having issues where a doctor from outside the hospital would call in and need to speak to a nurse about a particular patient, but that would usually involve tracking people down and playing a lot of phone tag."

Israel said the system had to be flexible, easier to use and capable of facilitating several types of communications, but harder to steal than cellular phones and digital pagers.

It wasn't long before Israel and his team found Vocera. The four-year-old, Cupertino, Calif.-based vendor offers a unique voice over Wi-Fi communications system. It combines a wearable device about the size of a granola bar with server software that enables users to not only speak with any person or group on the network, but also make and receive outside phone calls.

The Vocera badges operate over any 802.11b-compatible Wi-Fi network, and have a range similar to that of the average wireless network interface card.

Brent Lang, vice president of marketing for Vocera, said to interact, users push a button on the device, which users wear on a lanyard or clipped to a pocket, and use a voice command to open up a secure communications link.

"Basically our server, which is where our speech recognition engine is running, interprets voice commands like 'Call Brent Lang' to instantly connect to the badge of the person I'm trying to reach," Lang said. "It's as if I'm wearing a small speaker phone around my neck."

Hailing frequencies

Israel said that in the 10 months since Lincoln started using the Vocera devices, it's obvious that the devices have improved communications immeasurably, but not just for the medical personnel.

"Our security staff in particular loves them because they can dispatch people more quickly," Israel said. "Facilities maintenance loves it because if they have a technician working in an air conditioning shaft somewhere, that person doesn't have to leave to go get a tool; he can have a fellow employee bring that part to them."

That's because in addition to person-to-person communications, the product allows users to find people of a certain classification. For instance, if a nurse needs to find the nearest trauma surgeon, pressing the button and asking the device to locate one is all it takes for Vocera's server to seek out the nearest person who fits the classification.

It can also handle broadcast calls, similar to a walkie-talkie. "An example might be if we had an emergency on the third floor, and I needed to reach the third floor nursing department," Lang said. "Any member of that group could then respond to the entire group by pushing the button on their badge."

For more information:

VOIP security daunting but possible

The 2005 VOIP outlook

Better still for Lincoln, the implementation wasn't nearly as drawn-out as Israel had expected. Within two weeks from Vocera's first visit, the system was up and running in beta mode. Vocera's software was installed on a Windows 2000 server, testing the system and training the first user groups.

Perhaps the most laborious task was deciding which user groups the Vocera system would recognize and then imputing them into the server. Fortunately, Israel's team soon learned it could export the hospitals' human resources database into a comma-delineated file that the server could use to create user profiles for everyone simultaneously.

Warp speed?

Though Lincoln's implementation has so far been everything Israel hoped for, there were important precursors that enabled that success. Before the Vocera implementation, Israel's staff spent weeks building out its wireless LAN to so that it could increase security, track rouge access points, work on load-balancing and ensure that voice and data traffic both had enough bandwidth.

Vocera voice traffic is compressed and encrypted by the badge before being sent across the wireless network, it only needs about 8.5 Kbps of bandwidth. Lang said Vocera's tests show that the system can handle up to 20 simultaneous calls over a single access point.

The cost of the implementation, including the Vocera server, 350 initial badges and some network upgrades, ran about $400,000.

Even though Israel said the Vocera system is intuitive, there were some training hurdles. Employees had to learn to speak more slowly, and refrain from discussing confidential patient information in open areas. Also, he said employees often leave the devices on after their shifts, creating the need to keep a few spare batteries lying around.

Israel said he was fortunate that the hospital staff supported the Vocera implementation early on, despite some fear that the devices would be used as digital leashes.

"They're not meant to track people or tether them," Israel said, adding that anyone implementing such a system needs to make that clear from the get-go. "It's a job improvement tool. Not a means to give people more work."

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