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University Hospital finds small communication device brings big boost in efficiencies

SYRACUSE, N.Y.— A small, lightweight, four-inch wearable communication device has become as ubiquitous as ID badges at University Hospital with its impact being felt from such diverse departments as the ER, Pharmacy and Food Service.

Piloted four years ago with 250 people in four departments, the Vocera system at University Hospital by summer's end will boast 2,400 users in nearly every inpatient unit and most departments, placing more than 180,000 calls and broadcast a month.

A major technology milestone occurred June 3, when Kari Merriam, a registered nurse in the Emergency Department, placed the 3-millionth call on the Vocera system.

"A day at the hospital is a whirlwind of activity and our ability to communicate and be understood at this pace is paramount to doing our best everyday," said Dave George of the Division of Information Management Technology. "This technology is enabling us to do just that in the most subtle of ways."

Subtle is how the system communicates. It does away with loud overhead pages in patient areas, or the incessant beeping of pagers. To communicate using the Vocera system, all one needs to do is push a button on the device and identify the person one needs to speak with. The connection happens instantly over the hospital's wireless network. One can even dial a phone by simply reciting the phone number to be called into the communication badge.

The system received its first workout in the Emergency Room back in late fall 2003.

"There is always some anxiety when introducing a new technological device, but once it was demonstrated how this device could actually make us more efficient and effective, there was no stopping us," said Julie Soule, patient service leader for the adult emergency department.

Soule said the system quickly proved its worth by providing a faster way to communicate with the various services and departments often called on to assist the ED in patient care. "Letting the nursing staff upstairs know a patient was ready for X-ray often involved speaking with a variety of people," she said. "Today we use Vocera to speak directly with the person who needs that the information."

The system also enables the ED staff to be alerted immediately by the hospital lab when important test results need to be shared with medical personal right away.

And the icing on the cake for Soule is that the device eliminates the need for noisy overhead pages. That's not to say the ED will ever be a quiet place, but reducing the noise level makes it less stressful for patient and practitioner, Soule notes.

Lori Holmes, manager of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said the system allows physical therapists to communicate even though they are working in different buildings on campus. "This keeps us with the patient and off the telephone," she said.

University Hospital's busy pharmacy manages 2,000 different medications and fills thousands more orders each day. Pharmacy Director Russell Yandon says great efficiencies in the pharmacy operation have been made over the last several years, which included the introduction of the Vocera system.

"We've eliminated the number of calls that come into the Pharmacy from 14,000 annually to about 10,000 because of Vocera," Yandon said.

He said the system enables the Pharmacy and nursing staff to contact directly the pharmacy technicians who are delivering drug orders throughout the hospital.

Vocera has lent a high-tech touch to spiritual care.

"It has been an invaluable resource to help us communicate at the touch of the 'genie button' for urgent requests for a chaplain," said Terry Culbertson, spiritual care manager and supervisor of clinical pastoral education. "Most importantly it has helped us stay at the bedside of patients which is so important in our work."

Culbertson has found a different, unexpected use for Vocera, especially when working with the hospital's youngest patients. "It's a creative pastoral tool for young children who love to hear a voice that speaks directly to them."

Vocera also is streamlining operations in the university food and nutrition services operations by enabling instant access with catering associates whose job it is to take patient food orders and deliver meals. "It's so much more convenient for a nurse to speak directly to the person in charge of the patient's meal when a last minute request has been made or is needed," said Jamie Nicolosi, senior director of food and nutrition services, whose department prepares more than 900 meals for patients daily.

"It's better service for the customers—our patients—and that creates a better hospital experience," he said.

Officials from other hospitals, such as Stony Brook's University Hospital and Brigham & Women's Hospital have made trips to University Hospital to see first hand how the system works and to learn more about how a busy trauma center benefits from this device. And the calendar of other institutions wanting to visit, such as St. Barnabas Health Care System in Livingston, N.J., is filling up.

"It's been enjoyable being able to show and tell about this system with other hospitals," said George. "But while the technology provides us with the ability to be more efficient, it's actually the employees who've make it work so well."