Baycrest IT director battles SARS scare with technology

When Stephen Tucker went into work one day, he saw a woman crying because her husband was in the hospital and she wasn’t allowed to visit him. Baycrest Centre was one of the hospitals shut down due to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome scare that recently hit Toronto — and family and friends were

not permitted to see patients inside.

“”Up to that point I was more concerned about the technology side and not concerned about the people side,”” says the director of IT at Baycrest.

“”All of a sudden I realized this is pretty scary.””

Outside the hospital were police officers, emergency vehicles, barricades and a dozen people wearing masks. Though there are no reported cases of SARS at Baycrest, it will remain closed until authorities understand how SARS is spread and how it can be controlled.

“”For staff and family and patients, that’s the most frustrating part — we just don’t know how long (the hospital will be closed),”” he says.

While the SARS scare is testing the hospital’s disaster recovery plan, technology will also be used on a more personal level. After Tucker encountered the woman who was crying because she couldn’t see her husband, he wondered if there wasn’t something more that could be done to connect patients with their loved ones. The IT department already had a few projects in the works that it decided to fast-track, given the current situation.

“”We have about 800 elderly people in our hospital complex which is completely shut off from the world and … their anxiety level is a bit high,”” says Tucker. “”We have a palliative care unit where people are preparing to die. That’s really sad because these people aren’t going to be around very long and if this thing extends too long, they won’t have a chance to say goodbye to their families.””

Hospital staff are using digital cameras to take photos of patients and create electronic postcards, which can be e-mailed to loved ones or made available on the Internet. The IT department is also able to create two- to five-minute video postcards, which are placed on a streaming server. It also plans to use one-way and local two-way videoconferencing to connect patients with the outside world.

On the disaster recovery side, technology is being used to keep operations running as smoothly as possible. “”The good thing is that a lot of these things were already part of the disaster recovery plan we had in place,”” says Tucker. “”From a technology standpoint we were about 70 per cent prepared.””

Many departments were shut down and communications needed to be ramped up, especially because rumours and misinformation were spreading like wildfire. The IT department activated special features on the phone system, redeployed phones and set up command centres. Staff updated the Web site and information line on an almost hourly basis and created programs to monitor and control various resources. For example, a program was created to monitor the use of supplies — such as gowns, masks, goggles and gloves — to project future needs and keep the floors stocked.

“”We have a nice supply of these things today, but if this carries on for weeks, we don’t know how long that’s going to last,”” says Tucker, “”so we have to control that.””

Betty Anne Clark, technical director with laboratory and infection control, says without the communications technology in place, the hospital would have been “”devastated”” by the SARS scare. “”It has been a wonderful way to communicate with all kinds of people in the organization who might be affected by a change and ensuring that they get that notification quickly,”” she says. “”I’ve talked to some of my peers that are working in other locations and it’s really, really hectic, and they’re having real glitches. But things are working smoothly (at Baycrest),”” she says. For example, she says, in less than a week, the IT department was able to set up a feeding program and put all the information on a database. “”The technology we’re using — the pagers, the e-mail, the cell phones, the Web sites, the hospital information system and its conneTction with lab — all of those are just making things work so much faster and so much better.””

But there’s still room for improvement. “”I don’t have enough telephone lines,”” says Tucker. “”When this is over one of the first things I’m going to do is add several more telephone lines so I can ramp up if I need to. During a disaster it’s very hard to ramp up.”” He also plans to roll out more wireless connectivity to make it easier to get computers into some areas of the hospital.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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