It’s time to modernize emergency communications at hospitals

Hospitals today are at the forefront of technology and innovation. Clinicians have access to more information than was ever conceivable in the past.

We now have the technology to look inside patients' bodies via any number of imaging machines, wearable devices to track vital signs and send alerts for abnormal spikes, and personalized medicine to ensure treatments are targeted to each patient's unique biology and genetics. Soon we'll have access to even more fantastic methods, from nano-technology to 3D-printed artificial bones.

Despite the booming innovations in healthcare, however, there is one fundamental area in the industry that has not kept pace: communications technology. According to the Joint Commission, communication gaps lead to 70 percent of treatment delays and sentinel events in the hospital. How is it in the age of modern medicine that the pager as a means of communication is still so prevalent?

With the correct communications systems in place, hospitals can mitigate the impact of IT and staff crisis events with effective, workaround solutions. Communication systems that allow for immediate collaboration between IT and clinical staff during an emergency, IT outage, or day to day clinical and staffing needs can make a big impact on how care is delivered.

Minimizing Risk during an IT Outage
In a healthcare organization, whenever there is a partial or full IT systems outage it impacts the operation clinically – without access to a patient's most recent records and care they have previously received, lives are put at risk.

For many healthcare organizations that experience an IT outage, it is a difficult and time intensive process to deliver communications to key business and clinical staff about what system went down, what the impact was, and how to work around it. End-users are typically the first to report an outage, and lack of proactive communications from IT leads to a disruptive clinical environment which has the potential to impact patient care. Typically, email distribution groups are set up for management and clinicians asking them to call into a dedicated phone line to listen for updates – not very effective with no assurance that the staff has even received the initial message.

Hospitals need to implement emergency communication solutions that notify clinics, physicians, nurses and technicians via two-way alerts of both critical and operational events. Most importantly, the system needs to be able to get in touch with people where they need it most – the areas they deliver care. Whether that's through a mobile device while hospital staff are making rounds or in the exam room where they are practicing desktop medicine, hospitals need to be able to send alerts to all effected personnel with message delivery assurance. That way, workaround solutions--such as a read-only version of a hospital's web portal--can be relayed to staff members, maintaining vital continuity of operations and patient care.

This crisis communications technology can play an important role in addressing IT security threats. For example, an increasing number of hospitals are falling victim to ransomware attacks, malware that locks a victim's computer, preventing them from accessing data until a ransom (usually demanded in the form of Bitcoin) is paid. Many hospitals pay the ransom to avoid delays that could result in dire consequences such as a death or lawsuit. But with an emergency communications channel to alert employees—along with a workaround solution in the place of the locked-out computer – staff members can mitigate the security threat.

Protect Personnel in Times of Crisis
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the rate of violence-related workdays missed for healthcare workers is nearly four times that of private industry. The role of communications is paramount during incidents of violence in healthcare settings.

In a healthcare setting where there is the threat of violence or an active shooter, every minute of delay greatly increases the risk of death and injury. A facility must have the communication tools in place in advance to maximize safety during such an emergency. In fact, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends that businesses use devices including alarms, radios, cell phones and other security devices as part of an emergency response system.

Take the example of the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) a 272-bed hospital with eight clinics for active duty personnel and nine primary care sites for military families. NMCSD has implemented a mass notification and interactive command-wide communications that delivers mass notification and daily critical communications via telephone, text and email alerts to NMCSD staff from a single interface, unifying existing analog and digital systems over the IP network.

In February of this year, a civilian witness reported hearing gunshots in a Navy-owned fitness center a few buildings away from the main hospital. In the end, it was determined that no shots were actually fired, but all of the advanced planning, training, emergency protocols, and crisis alert infrastructure worked as it was designed. Since the threat seemed very real, and everyone responded accordingly, the realism and adherence to emergency measures and strict protocols served as a successful, unintended drill scenario of the very best kind, with a safe, no-harm-done outcome.

Solve Staffing Challenges
Managing staffing changes and locating a team member to fill a shift is a huge time drain for many hospitals. Typically, this has been done through calling down a phone list – a process which pulls a staff member away from their job and can take up to a few hours of time to complete in some cases.

Kaiser Permanente of northern California, which is comprised of thousands of physicians, nurses, administrators, IT workers and more across 21 hospitals, has used its emergency communication technology to manage shift changes and scheduling via automated staff messages. Their in-house solution, KP Staffing Alerts, is an easy to use, two way automated system that allows the staffing office to send important messages about available shifts directly to staff through their mobile and home phones, text message and email. Once received, staff members are given a set amount of time to respond with their availability. This saves the hospital significant time and resources, ultimately improving efficiency and ensuring continued levels of quality patient care.

The Best Time to Repair the Roof is When the Sun is Shining
Changing technology can be a hard process, but also an exciting one because it brings with it the opportunity to set a higher bar for healthcare for patients. New technology like BlackBerry's AtHoc are bringing innovative new crisis communications capabilities to hospitals, utilizing principles of secure social networking to empower practitioners to collaborate faster and more reliably in times of need.

In healthcare, the ability to communicate and collaborate efficiently and with accountability can literally mean the difference between life and death. While any technology change at a major healthcare organization takes time, administrators and practitioners should remember that key fact and not delay. With proven emergency communications technology available, it's time to bring healthcare communications up to speed with all of the other wonderful innovations taking place. As the saying goes, it's always better to repair the roof when the sun is shining.

About Sara Jost RN
Sara Joined BlackBerry in 2010 as the Healthcare Subject Matter Expert and Healthcare Vertical Lead responsible for healthcare strategy, marketing and sales programs. She has over 14 years of healthcare experience, both as a researcher and a High Risk Labour and Delivery Registered Nurse. Sara has a BScH in Life Sciences from Queen's University and a BS in Nursing from University of Toronto. For more information on BlackBerry's AtHoc, a pioneer and recognized leader in networked crisis communication, which supports public and private healthcare organizations, see:


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