Unified Communications: The Next BIG Thing in Healthcare

In previous Blog entries and on my House Calls audio-cast series, I’ve highlighted healthcare customers who are doing some outstanding work using Microsoft and Microsoft partner solutions to build portals that make key performance indicators, quality standards, and price standards more transparent. These same solutions are being used to automate clinical and business work-flow processes, manage documents, and generally improve collaboration across the enterprise. Today, I want to focus on what I see as the next really big opportunity in healthcare; Unified Communication.

Healthcare is a communication intensive business. Good communication has a profound effect on the quality and safety of patient care. Communication also has a huge bearing on patient satisfaction. Yet historically, the options for how we communicate with each other in the healthcare industry have been somewhat limited. We are hampered by an industry that has far too long relied on old fashioned telephone, paging, fax, and mail (both postal and interoffice); not exactly the most contemporary communication infrastructure.

Today’s progressive businesses use a wide variety of tools and technologies to facilitate communication. Communication can be synchronous or asynchronous depending on the urgency or context of the message. Information can be relayed and exchanged by instant message, e-mail, telephone (including voice over IP), audio conferencing, or video conferencing. In addition, the concept of “presence” in communication technologies now allows us to know ahead of time if someone is available to receive a message or take a call. It also lets us set up rules on how, when, where, and on what devices we want to be contacted.

So let’s extend all that into the typical healthcare setting. No longer am I restricted to the telephone for communicating with colleagues or patients. Depending on the nature of the message, where I am and what I’m doing, I can decide to use either a synchronous or asynchronous mode of communication. No more waiting on hold or playing phone tag on the telephone. Furthermore, as communication technology converges to the computer and is increasingly facilitated by the Net, my choice of device is no longer restricted either. My office telephone, Smartphone, Pocket-PC, laptop, Tablet-PC or desktop PC will all be able to do the job for me whether it’s an instant message, e-mail, voice, or video communication that is required. This technology will also have a profound effect on the way we conduct meetings and do training in the future. The use of multi-media web conferencing and interactive e-learning technologies will absolutely explode in healthcare as we increasingly communicate electronically in the office and at home for grand rounds presentations, staff training, patient education, and more. Finally, advances in speech recognition and the incorporation of speech recognition technology into unified communications, will open up new vistas for securely accessing patient information and relaying clinical orders.

I’m not going to spill the beans on everything that is yet to come. But if you work in healthcare, or you are an industry vendor building communication and collaboration solutions for the healthcare industry, the future is blazingly bright.

Bill Crounse, M.D. Worldwide Health Director Microsoft