IM helps connect healthcare company

Because of its geographically dispersed staff and high percentage of telecommuting employees, Intellicare, which operates health-related call centers, has benefitted from implementing an instant-messaging platform.

Through a network of medical contact centers and telecommuting nurses, the company offers medical phone support for about 250 clients, such as hospitals, health insurance companies and doctor's group practices. For example, a group of doctors would hire Intellicare to handle patient calls after business hours.

IM has helped Intellicare create a sense of virtual community among its employees, facilitated the provisioning of remote training and boosted real-time communications within the company, improving the flow and availability of information needed to provide services.

"Most of our work is done over the phone. We have implemented our business using a remote-workforce model so we can leverage [geographically dispersed] clinical resources that would not normally be available to a traditional bricks-and-mortar organization," says Jeff Forbes, Intellicare's CIO. "Keeping that remote-workforce model in mind is the reason why we selected an IM platform when we did."

Intellicare, which was founded in 1997 and is privately held, has an operations and data center at its Portland, Maine, headquarters. The company also has call centers and other facilities in Connecticut, Maryland, Texas and Missouri. But about 75% of its nurses work from home. Because of the dispersed nature of its staff, the company decided it needed to invest in a messaging and collaboration platform that could support its virtual workforce. About two years ago it made the decision to replace Microsoft's Exchange messaging and collaboration platform with competitor Lotus Notes, and soon after, it implemented Lotus' Sametime enterprise IM system.

"One of the drivers to migrating to Notes was that we were looking for a far broader architecture to support the business," Forbes says. "We weren't just interested in e-mail, but in a broader platform that would facilitate education and communication, and a sense of corporate community throughout Intellicare."

Before this change, Intellicare employees weren't allowed to use IM. "We didn't permit it because we didn't have a secure platform, and our IM platform carries in it data that is sensitive," Forbes says. "We like Sametime because it's an encrypted environment, it's well integrated with Notes' security model and it provides an auditable process: You can log IM conversations so if there's any issue, we can go back and re-create what happened."

Putting employees on a public IM network and securing their communications with a management and monitoring tool wasn't an option for Intellicare. "If you use the term 'public network' with our customers, they'd have a huge problem with it," he says.

With Sametime, which recently was renamed Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing, Intellicare nurses can tap peers that can assist them in advising a patient on the phone. "If we have a nurse whose specialty is pediatrics or even a sub-specialty within that, that nurse is available to the other nurses as a resource during a call" via IM, he says. "Bottom line is there is easy access to all the knowledge workers."

IM also has made it easier to provide training to employees. "Micro training" sessions can be set up quickly via Sametime and its Web conferencing feature to address a specific topic, he says.

Along these lines, linking a dispersed workforce with an IM tool has helped Intellicare create a sense of corporate community among employees. "About 75% of our nurses work from their homes, and we have to eliminate that sense of isolation that people feel working by themselves. [IM] allows for informal conversations and the building of informal relationships, which are critical to any corporation. Without that, it would be very difficult to deploy this remote workforce model."

IM platforms such as Sametime have developed to such a point that Forbes sees how they are displacing e-mail to a certain extent. "The Sametime-type platforms will ultimately replace to some degree traditional e-mail, which has become onerous and slow. E-mail isn't designed for supporting real-time work processes, [and in particular] not medical processes where we need answers right away."

In addition to improving communications and efficiency, IM has had a real affect in keeping costs down at Intellicare. "We can leverage the resources and expertise in real time across the country to whoever needs it. This is key in managing costs in any sort of healthcare delivery system: not having to replicate expertise in each location you have, but to be able to share that expertise across the enterprise," Forbes says. "We see IM as a key technology not only for our remote workforce model but also to managing the healthcare process in the future."

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Intellicare has about 200 of its 275 employees on IM now and is moving toward rolling it out to almost everybody, Forbes says. He says he wants to extend the company's IM platform, "IM robots,"making the IM interface the door to a variety of corporate information locked in diverse applications and systems. For example, an IM robot could be developed to grab data from human resources systems, letting employees obtain that information using Sametime.

"If you saw all the systems an employee or nurse would have to contend with [here], there's just far too many, each with its own interface. We want to take the IM robot concept and make it a major interface into other systems," Forbes says.

Perez is a correspondent with the IDG News Service.

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