For anyone who still thinks teleconferencing is a feelgood application with little underlying value, here’s a salutary lesson from the East Midlands, where the technology is helping to create a consultative environment in which seismic change can still power forward. Plus, thanks to Office 365, it’s infinitely scalable at low cost.
East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) was one of healthcare’s earliest adopters of Office 365, Microsoft’s enterprise-grade cloud services platform. EMAS has progressively rolled out more components of Office 365 to more users across the past twelve months.
Most ICT deployments require time to bed down and for familiarity to propagate amongst staff, but the deployment at EMAS is now starting to yield demonstrable and highly scalable results. Most recently, EMAS has used Lync, Microsoft’s unified communications system (included in Office 365), in the first of a pioneering series of monthly videoconferences between EMAS Chief Executive Phil Milligan and more than 100 managers across the five counties which EMAS serves.
Opening up a dialogue
Leon Judge, EMAS Deputy Head of ICT, says “We have over 100 managers spread across a 6500 square-mile area and 2,500 front-line staff. Our Chief Executive knows that we are going through a significant period of change and wanted a two-way dialogue with his managers, along with any staff who happened to be available. Email bulletins and newsletters are traditional ways of communicating but they are only one-way and perceived as ‘top-down’. With Lync, he can capture all the comments and suggestions being fed back from people on the ground in real-time, and that gives us a much more consultative approach.”
“I’ve been part of this as a manager on-site myself”, says Judge. “It’s amazing to see managers who spend most of their time out on the road – they’re paramedics in their greens, working real shifts –devoting their valuable time to be a part of the videoconference”. The reason for the enthusiasm and high buy-in is that video, as a medium, encourages participation and interaction. Plus Lync is real-time: “It’s slick: we’re gathering feedback and answering questions live rather than having to have emails sent in and days passing by before staff get a response to their suggestions.”
Lync and RoundTable in action
In action, the RoundTable system is simple to use for both the hosts and the many staff dispersed across the EMAS ‘patch’. Milligan and his senior team are visible to all participants at once, and then, when questions are invited, the system will switch focus to the person speaking, wherever they may be: it is effectively an auditorium with full two-way video.
Tim Gee, Sales Manager, Health and Life Sciences at Microsoft UK, says “Lync is ideally suited to organisations like the NHS. It’s staff operate a 24-hour service which necessitates shift work and means meetings can’t always easily be arranged. Then there’s the huge dispersal of staff over wide areas. Finally, there’s the constant pressure of competing commitments: in critical care, travel time is wasted time. Lync makes engaging and fulfilling teleconferencing a reality, with minimum financial or IT department outlay.”
Being pro-technology, EMAS Chief Executive Milligan has taken something of a lead here and his inaugural videoconference was live and unmoderated beyond basic facilitation. Reaction has been positive: “Yes, he’s on the spot, but how many organisations can say that all staff, whatever their role can have a direct line to the Chief Executive?”, says Judge. “It’s not confrontational, it means knowledge from the front line can reach the boardroom fast, and inform decision-making for everyone.”
Despite reaching over 100 individuals at once, technical administration of Lync is painless. Judge says, “When we first examined Office 365, the key challenge was that we needed to deploy both quickly and cost-effectively. We don’t have the time or the money to invest in massive local infrastructure, and with Office 365 we can manage our subscriptions with a few clicks in a management portal and have people up and running in minutes. So the IT team haven’t been burdened with maintenance and deployment - it becomes more of an administrative task for us.”
Daniel Nugent of EMAS’ technical Partner, Office 365 specialists, Core GB, agrees: “In the past, looking at the way licenses needed to be purchased and managed in terms of servers and hardware, planning for scalability was a full-time job and it often required a lot of work and money to do. Office 365, more than any other product we’ve worked with, allows for simple scalability; that opportunity that if you do need to expand or contract quickly, there won’t be any extra capital expenditure required to protect your investment in software and services.”
The videoconference may well come to be seen as a defining moment in the take-up of Lync across EMAS. “I’m now seeing our managers using technology on a person-to-person or person-to-team basis to communicate across the patch themselves, and they’re starting to rely on it”, says Judge. “When I log in to Lync and see the list of people online, it’s increasing. We also have a growing waiting list of users to activate”. Core GB’s Nugent adds, “One of the great things about Lync is that user training is quite an easy process because Lync uses what are often very familiar tools and interfaces. It’s easy to pick up, users can quickly see the benefits in their daily work, and so, in our experience, user adoption is high from the outset.”
There are also plans to exploit Lync not just for management and operational briefings, but for clinical purposes too: Judge’s team is considering deploying video into ambulances, so that crews can have point-to-point link-ups with A&E departments to deal with challenging medical decisions.
EMAS is typical of NHS organisations: all are undergoing change management programmes which stretch the capacity of managers across the system, all have an eye firmly on budgets, and all look to technology to take some of the strain. With no upfront capital expenditure, total control and ever more visible benefit, cloud services like Office 365 have plenty to offer.
Posted by Nick Saalfeld - Microsoft UK Health correspondent