Internet Telephony Keeps Baton Rouge Hospital In Touch When Hurricane Hits

Voice over IP brings help to patients in disaster

by / August 30, 2005
As New Orleans hospitals are forced to evacuate in the wake of hurricane Katrina, major trauma and critical-care hospitals in other parts of Louisiana are having to crowd patients into every available unused space. One such hospital is Baton Rouge General.

Operating on the power supplied by a back-up generator and with the availability of local phone service but no long distance, the hospital turned to technology to keep information flowing. Fortunately, the hospital still had its broadband Internet connection, so the hospital's information technology outsourcing provider, PHNS, coordinated donations from several companies including Dell, Vonage and a local Radio Shack.

"The local phones were restored, but there was virtually no long distance service," said Rich Roberts, a systems architect at PHNS. "The medical people need to be able to call doctors, insurance providers, specialists and family members that are outside the city. Then, we had an 'Aha' moment and called Vonage in New Jersey and asked for help."

Vonage provides voice over IP services via broadband connections.

"They immediately agreed to help, donating the hardware as well as the local and long distance services so the hospital can dial out of Baton Rouge," said Roberts. "That's huge for the doctors and for patient care."

Baton Rouge General was also in critical need of laptops with wireless connections that could be positioned in the new "patient areas," Roberts said, as patient information was stored in a database accessed from a Web interface designed by PHNS for the Baton Rouge General hospital.

"Twenty Dell laptops are in transit and should arrive this afternoon," said Roberts. "Dell responded quickly to our request and wanted to help. Then we had to get the [digital-to-analog converters] from a local retail distributor and most of them are shut down in Baton Rouge."

Hospitals now depend on computers to transmit everything from lab results and doctors' orders between floors as well as patient records to the Emergency Room. Efficient hospital IT operations are critical to maintain effective and safe patient care.

To connect doctors in the hospital to much-needed patient records and communication with outside doctors, specialists, insurers and family members, Roberts began calling stores in Baton Rouge until he found a Radio Shack on Florida Street whose manager was willing to help. The store manager, initially waiting out the storm and resulting slow day in his store, immediately offered to drive around and find the VoIP equipment when told the hospital was in need of the devices to connect their phones to the Internet. Thus freeing Roberts' team to manage the hospital's other IT needs.

The hospital ultimately used nine voice-over IP converters and wireless-enabled laptops with VoIP software installed for long distance communications and to set up a public branch exchange for communications within the hospital and sharing patient data.

"Now they can receive records, reports and information on patients," said Roberts, "and they can be in touch with attending doctors who will likely be in another city. It will be invaluable in the Emergency Room and triage areas. One thing is clear: Everyone really wants to help."