‘Star Trek’-style badge helps keep hospital staff in touch.
By: Tamsyn Burgmann Special to the Star
As in a ‘Star Trek’-style badge, she can ask for instructions or bring him running.
The cutting-edge tool making all this possible is called Vocera, a multi-purpose intercom that uses mobile technology. Fastened to the shirt or a lanyard strung around the neck, Vocera breaks down communication barriers by allowing people wearing the badge to speak to each other with the press of a button. Hands-free and customizable to any accent, a user then simply gives a verbal request such as “Call Dr. Simone.”
“We shouldn’t think that the only things we can do to improve health care are curing cancer or dropping heart-attack rates,” said Simone, a thoracic surgeon and medical director of the intensive care unit.
“Those are very important goals to achieve. But there’s still going to be the patient coming in to get their appendix out. If we can make their hospital stay better than it was two years ago, then it’s worth the endeavour.”
Lighter than a cellphone, Vocera has a display screen that receives hospital-sent text messages, voice-mail s and will alert security when its grey button is tapped twice in an emergency.
Staff members say its benefits are endless. Not only can a nurse get speedy action from a doctor, but surgeons can call for tools they’ve forgotten; porters can be summoned in haste; lab technicians mixing chemotherapy needn’t remove protective gear to give word it’s ready.
It was a year ago March, after hospital president and CEO Rob Devitt stumbled across California-based Vocera’s “really cool” technology, that Toronto East General went full throttle.
“We’re the first hospital in the country that has gone hospital-wide,” Devitt said, noting that while U.S. hospitals use it widely, only a few in Ontario have tried it on a small scale. “Nobody else jumped in with both feet like we did, to really lever all the advantages it gives us, you’ve got to jump in.”
He calls the decision a “no-brainer,” likening its implementation to a quadruple-word play in Scrabble.
That’s because it achieved four targets: It has boosted productivity, reduced errors, increased staff safety and forced the hospital to go wireless.
The latter, a complete retrofit of the sprawling 80-year-old institution by IBM Corp., means the hospital could eventually see doctors accessing electronic patient records from computers stationed next to the beds. That development would be an achievement on its own.
Some 2,600 staff members across all departments are now trained to use Vocera, with 450 to 700 people potentially reaping its advantages at any one time.
Nearly 300 black boxes mounted throughout the one-million-square-foot hospital by IBM ensure all badges get strong reception – even in the basement, stairwells and elevators.
“Hospitals are especially challenging, they’re almost like rabbit warrens,” said John Wilms, client executive with IBM’s health-care group, the implementer of numerous Vocera systems across North America. “They’ve got a lot of thick brick, a lot of concrete around the medical imaging areas, there’s a lot of interference to wireless signals. So it’s a real challenge to get effective wireless coverage that picks up reception properly.”
Rising to that task was well worth the couple of million dollars in costs to get the system up and running, Devitt said. As the badge helps cut the number of workplace injuries and reduces lost time, he predicts it will pay for itself in a few years.
“And there are no extra costs to the patient, none at all,” Devitt added.
For Dr. Simone, it’s Vocera’s power to connect that’s proven “indispensable.”
While recently treating a patient in an isolation room – all suited up in mask, gown and gloves – a nurse asked him via the badge if another patient, who’d just had surgery, could leave her bed. A quick “yes” from Simone meant the woman was immediately free to move, rather than forced to wait anxiously while he spent hours in seclusion.