Business intelligence a life line for Canadian Blood Services

There will be blood.

That’s the credo of Steven Smith, the director of business continuity management for the Canadian Blood Services (CBS). Especially during a disaster, such as a pandemic, when the sick need blood most, and it’s hardest to collect — Smith must make sure his organization’s vital product gets delivered. It’s normally a product in high demand, as half of Canadians either need blood themselves or know someone who do.

Over the past couple of years as swine flu and bird flu pandemics threatened to disrupt society, CBS sought to respond aggressively to that scenario. A rapidly spreading sickness could threaten the national charity’s staffing, donors, and delivery and transportation services.

“At about week nine into the pandemic our resources get depleted,” Smith says. “We need strategies in place to prevent that because a lot of Canadians rely on what we do.”


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Knowing when to trigger that strategy is vital to the plan’s success. CBS relies on a sophisticated IT environment to deliver real-time indicators in order to make that decision. Business intelligence (BI) software from IBM Corp.-owned Cognos brings together data from across various systems and presents it on a single dashboard.

pandemic indicators
Canadian Blood Services track several indicators that could trigger its disaster reponse plans, using a dashboard.

CBS’ product is blood and their market are the sick and dying. Since delivering their product is a matter of life and death, the charity relies on technology to a degree that many for-profit companies may not have too.

“We’re an information based organization, supplying blood across Canada,” says Terry Cairns, CIO. “Blood can be broken down into different products and people have different attributes … there are so many elements of information that it’s a huge challenge to take the information and use it in intelligent ways.”

Without BI, “we’d be struggling,” he adds.

He’s not exaggerating. CBS delivers 1.15 million blood components every year, and collects about 1 million blood donations at 15,834 clinics across Canada. It is the sole blood supplier across Canada, except for Quebec.

It operates 42 permanent collection sites, 11 production sites, three testing labs and one national contact centre. Donations must be specifically coded based on blood type, ethnicity, antibodies, and more. Mistakes are not an option.

“Without that information we can harm people or put them in a position where they could become very ill, or they could die,” Cairns says… [Next Page]

CBS can be compared to a goods manufacturer, says Gareth Doherty, research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. They have a supply chain to manage and want to be able to see current demand and forecast future demand. That allows them to schedule production to meet needs.

Tracking indicators that demand might change and keeping an eye on supply level is good business for most companies. But for CBS, it’s a matter of life and death. That’s why they’ve created real-time monitoring capabilities, rather than indicators that refresh once or twice a week. It means a big investment in IT and a complex environment.

This type of real-time monitoring is not witnessed in most small and mid-sized firms and only in a fraction of larger enterprises, Doherty says. “The stakes are really high. If you don’t get the blood supply to individuals, they are going to die. It’s that simple.”

CBS tracks six distinct metrics using its BI software that could trigger disaster response plans. They are staff absenteeism, blood inventory levels, donor appointment cancellation rates, donor no-show rates, blood collection volume and external metrics such as the Public Health Information of Canada and the World Health Organization (WHO). Indicators established as pandemic alert systems by WHO are only part of the equation because they are for worldwide severity levels, not localized levels.

no shows
If donors miss appointments to give Blood, it could affect overall supply.

If more donors cancel their appointments or or just don’t turn up, the BI software flags this, Smith says. “It’s time to trigger certain things to ensure donor protection.”

Smith outlined CBS’ plans at Toronto-based World Conference for Disaster Management June 7.

CBS has typical business continuity measures you would expect in any large organization. Some employees can work from home by connecting to the office via a secure VPN connection, for example. But CBS also needs to have other measures for field workers who must be on the job, and donors who could also risk catching flu.

If donors fear they are exposing themselves to flu, CBS will implement a wellness check point at its donation collection locations. It’s a station just outside the main clinic where masked-and-gloved staff members assess donors for signs of illness… [Next Page]

CBS staff who must remain on the job have the option of taking part in an antiretroviral drug program. The charity will distribute Tamiflu and Relenza to staff willing and able to use the drugs to ward off illness during an outbreak.

Sometimes the Cognos-driven dashboard can stop CBS from jumping the gun and triggering their plans too early, Smith says. As it did last Winter in the midst of the swine flu pandemic. Seeing other health care facilities trigger their pandemic plans, CBS wondered if it was time to pull the trigger.

“Based on the fact we weren’t seeing any significant shifts in sick leave, we didn’t need to release the antiretrovirals,” Smith says. “It helps us avoid a knee-jerk reaction that could create a sense of panic.”

Cognos has used at CBS for eight years. But the dashboard is a more recent use of the software. It is accessed via a Web-based interface by 15 decision makers that make up the national emergency response team.

Experience with the software was clearly the reason CBS went with Cognos when it came to a business continuity product.  But there are other applications on the market for those who want to explore their options, Doherty says.

“All the major BI vendors would be able to do something along these lines,” he says. “The decision about what tool to use is really about the expertise in IT on the development side. What customization would be required?”

Cairns is plenty familiar with Cognos. So much so that he’s now extending it out for more applications, including users outside of the company. Why not let doctors register with the system so they can find a matching kidney they are in need of? Or let donors schedule their own appointments with simpler Web-based interface?

“We decided from a demographics perspective, young people would rather go to the Web,” Cairns says. It’d also be a load off the Sudbury-based call centre.

An appointment management system is ready to go live to the Web for Albertans early this Fall. It will be rolled out nationally later in the Fall.

If all goes well, donors will log on and make appointments. And there will be blood.

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