Unified communication system helps Niagara hospitals clear up e-mail bottleneck

An amalgamation of eight hospitals in the Niagara region was able to avert mailbox mayhem by upgrading from an aging messaging system to a unified communicationsserver which incorporated voice, e-mail and calendaring functions.

Serving more than 411,000 residents across the region, the Niagara Health System (NHS) represents Ontario’s largest multi-site hospital amalgamation. Managing the NHS’s more than 1,600 workstations, over 7,000 staff mailboxes and hundreds of servers presents a daunting task for any IT staff.

Switching to Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2007 system, however, helped the organization streamline mailbox management, consolidate its messaging environment and improve staff productivity.

Prior to the deployment the NHS’s massive number of mailboxes was taxing IT staff members with it considerable security and data backup needs.

“Our ability to deliver mail services to staff was becoming more complicated,” according to Jeff Wilson, regional manager, ICT technical support, NHS.

For instance, he said, “with so many mailboxes, it was becoming difficult to search data via the respective mail servers.”

Since doctors, nurses and other hospital staff were constantly on the go, the NHS also sought a communication system that would allow workers to access the mail server through a variety of methods.

The NHS contacted CMS Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based IT firm, to review the regions existing IT infrastructure.

CMS recommended that NHS migrate its system from the existing Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 to the more powerful Exchange Server 2007.

Two key advantages of this strategy, according to Bryan Rusche, senior product manager for Exchange Server 2007, are the system’s 64-bit computing capability and its ability to quickly recover data. The server he said would be able to scale up to the growing needs of NHS.

“Exchange Server has the necessary power for the health system’s computing needs and the ability to recover quickly from a disaster,” he said.

Wilson said prior to the deployment, his IT team often had difficulty maintaining the disparate systems of the eight hospitals. IT technicians had to contend with different hardware and software configurations.

Staff also complained about difficulties finding information such as contact lists, notices and e-mail through the mail server. This made it hard to schedule meetings for certain groups, handle time sensitive request or make faster decisions, he said.

With the roll out of the new server, Wilson said, employees obtained a single inbox to access all their important communications.

NHS employees were able to access their e-mail, voice mail, calendar and contacts list from any location and over a variety of clients and devices using one interface.

Tools such as a new scheduling assistant also boosted productivity by providing users with a visual onscreen guide of the best and worst dates and times to meet with their contacts.

“The new environment also allows easy transition from phone to e-mail to video conferencing in real-time,” Wilson said.

The new system’s local continuous replication feature (LCR) also makes it possible to create and maintain an exact copy of databases in a storage group in a specified location. With LCR, IT staff can quickly recover data in the event of a major disk failure or database corruption.

The upgrade enabled seamless integration with NHS’s existing Microsoft Share Point Portal and allowed staff to securely access the corporate instant messaging system without going through a virtual private network (VPN) connection.

This feature is very useful when a staff member is off site or on vacation and co-workers need access to data which only that person is familiar with. “The absent worker can send co-workers the direct link (to the document) in Share Point without having to use a VPN, which I think is absolutely phenomenal,” Wilson said.

The 64-bit extension capabilities in Exchange Server 2007 also enabled NHS to switch from eight mail servers to four.

“Because of the 64-bit processing and the number of mailboxes we can put onto one server now, we’ve reduced our hardware requirements,” said Wilson

Organizations revamping existing messaging infrastructure or deploying new unified communications systems must carefully consider the project’s impact on people who will be using the technology, according to one analyst.

Complexity and unfamiliarity with unified communication are significant adoption barriers, said Tony Olvet, vice-president for communications practice at analyst firm IDC Canada in Toronto.

Businesses must also ensure that the system they chose will be able to scale up and accommodate and any changes in their operations, he said.

Here are some points to consider:

Take a problem resolution approach – It’s not just about the technology. Organizations that take the time to analyze their problems, determine the root cause and then consider how technology can be use to achieve desired results, get more substantial payoff from their projects.

Employ standards-based integration – Information communication technologies (ICT) should be in sync with business processes.

Free up the ICT environment – Business must develop an ICT environment unconstrained by infrastructure. The organization must have a management culture and style that is open to innovation.

Consider the user – Workers who will be using or impacted by the deployment must be informed about how the new technology will affect the way they work. Get feedback from the users and provide them with ample time and training to adapt to the changes.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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