Staff at three British Columbia health-care facilities are talking to each other through wireless communications badges reminiscent of Star Trek.

In the first Canadian installation of a system from Vocera Communications, Inc., the province’s Interior Health Authority (IHA) has equipped about

750 nurses, ward clerks, porters and maintenance staff at extended-care facilities in Kamloops and 100 Mile House and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Vernon, B.C., with the badges, which use the 802.11g wireless networking standard.

The voice-activated devices let a user call another user simply by pressing a button and saying his or her name, says Roy Southby, director of technology services for the IHA in Kelowna. They can also receive and place phone calls through the hospital switchboard and talk to pre-defined groups of people with a single call.

“”It certainly has helped improve communication,”” says Barbara Ulevog, a team leader on the nursing staff at Overlander extended care home in Kamloops.

Health workers can broadcast to select groups

The health authority had been using Companion wireless telephones from Nortel Networks Corp. Nortel had stopped supporting the Companion system but had not yet replaced it with an 802.11-based handset, Southby says, “”so we started looking at what we could replace wireless Companions with.””

The authority chose the Vocera system in February, and by April it was installed in the three facilities. The initial implementation cost around $200,000, including one year of maintenance and a license covering up to 450 users. Additional badges cost about $300 each. The authority plans to buy an enterprise license and use the system in more facilities in the future.

The badges weigh about two ounces. Each has a single activation button and a small display that can show the phone number of an incoming call. Users’ names are entered into a central database through an Excel spreadsheet, Southby says. A user can have more than one name. For example, someone might be in the system as both William and Bill. The IHA can also set up calling groups, so a nurse might say something like “”Code Blue”” and be connected to everyone in the Code Blue group.

If a nurse needs to reach a doctor who is not in the hospital, the wireless system connects to the hospital phone system, which can call the doctor at several phone numbers until he or she answers. To call a number not programmed into the system, the user speaks the number, Ulevog says.

The Vocera system can also be linked to the systems that allow patients to call for assistance from their beds. A text message appears on the badge display telling the nurse which patient is calling, explains Brent Lang, vice-president of marketing at Vocera. If the hospital’s call system has voice capability, the nurse can then choose whether to open a voice conversation with the patient.

“”The nurse is left in control of the situation,”” he says.

The health authority plans to implement this capability at Overlander soon. A relatively new feature of the system, it is already used at hospitals in Baltimore and Utah, Lang says.

“”I was amazed how simple the system is to install,”” Southby says. The authority already had 802.11 wireless networks in parts of its facilities, but had to add more access points to provide ubiquitous coverage. Southby says he was surprised at how extensive the coverage needed to be. “”We didn’t realize all the places staff can get to,”” he says, adding that his advice to anyone installing the system would be “”don’t skimp on your access points.””

Southby says the system has delivered 99.9 per cent reliability so far. Ulevog praises the sound quality, though she says the fact that only one person in a conversation can talk at once took a bit of getting used to.

The IHA uses fibre links to run the wireless systems in all three locations from a single server in Kelowna. This is unusual, Lang says — most customers run the system locally — but it works well thanks to the high-speed network, which allows the three facilities to operate on a single license and lets users communicate among the locations without making long-distance calls.

While hospitals represent a key market for Vocera, Lang says the company also sells the system to other customers where there are mobile users who need to be connected all the time. Retail stores, manufacturing plants and some government and military organizations are among the customers, he says.

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