Unified in Care and Communications

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About 1.4 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) is working to reverse the high death rate (about 40 percent) from this disease through not only medical approaches to help advanced-stage cancer patients, but through nutritional counseling, physical therapy, and even spiritual support. Another way it’s doing this is through a 24- hour Oncology Information Specialist telephone service that lets cancer patients call for more information about the disease and discuss their conditions and treatment options.

With a support and treatment specialist just a phone call away, the service is one of CTCA’s biggest selling points. With its old phone system, however, only one of every 12 patients who called the service was able to get through to a specialist right away.

"Every time a patient calls, it’s a moment of truth. He needs to talk to someone," says Chad Eckes, chief information officer at CTCA, which is headquartered in Schaumberg, Ill. "Our focus—and it’s very key to our brand—is to have every patient talk to a live person."

But the inability to reach a specialist at all, or without enduring long delays, was hurting CTCA’s reputation. "Patients make the decision to come to us on their own. There are no referrals; they see an ad or hear about us through word-of-mouth, and then call for more information," Eckes says. "Now imagine seeing a wonderful ad on TV [for CTCA], calling, and you can’t get through."

The problem was that CTCA had been using a legacy phone system that placed all calls on shared lines and hunt groups. Furthermore, the phone system handled each of the four regional treatment centers CTCA operates—in Philadelphia, Seattle, Zion, Ill., and Tulsa, Okla.—as independent facilities isolated from each other and from corporate headquarters.

"We knew we had to come to a strategic platform that would take our growing organization and let it be viewed as one," Eckes recalls.

So for the past few years, CTCA has been rolling out Cisco Systems’ Unified Contact Center Enterprise solution, along with a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) network, across all of its facilities. That rollout to the existing facilities continued through the fall of 2007, but the project is still an ongoing effort as CTCA moves forward with the construction of a fifth treatment facility in Goodyear, Ariz., that is scheduled to open in 2009.

The fully redundant Cisco system delivers intelligent contact routing, call treatment, network-to-desktop computer telephony integration (CTI), and multichannel contact management over an IP infrastructure. It also combines multichannel automatic call distributor (ACD) functionality with IP telephony in a unified solution.

Cisco’s Unified Contact Center Enterprise solution has also enabled CTCA to smoothly integrate inbound and outbound voice applications with Internet applications, such as real-time chat, Web collaboration, and email. This integration enables a single agent to support multiple interactions simultaneously, regardless of which communications channel the customer has chosen, an important factor to consider since an information specialist is also available for Web chat through a link on CTCA’s Web site.


CTCA’s phone channel handles roughly 22,100 incoming calls per month; with the new system in place, call volumes into the contact center have increased 64 percent. Calls are handled in the order in which they enter the system, and the belief is that no one should have to wait long when discussing matters as serious as cancer and their health. In that context, "a solution was absolutely critical to make sure we have constant availability of agents to our customers and patients," Eckes says.

The bulk of the call center operations are handled from CTCA’s main base of operations, though each facility also has an oncology information specialist on site as well. "To our patients and customers, we are viewed as one large call center, but it’s really dispersed across the country," Eckes says. The call center currently has 75 ports, and getting the staff to adjust was fairly straightforward. "It was easy for our people to learn the new system," Eckes recalls. "We did some minor training, but there was a quick learning curve. The system is so simplistic that [training] did not cause a huge hurdle."

Along with the contact center changeover, CTCA also switched its in-hospital phone systems to a VoIP network. To date, the entire project has included 2,500 to 2,700 phone lines systemwide. "Cisco wireless networks span everywhere in every hospital," Eckes says. "It helps the patients in our beds get in touch quickly and easily with nurses. Our patient response time is now 20 percent better than it was before."

Though he says switching the phone lines generally went off without major glitches, there were the typical hiccups along the way. "Our biggest challenge was keeping 100 percent uptime while replacing all the cables, networks, and phone systems," Eckes recalls. "But Cisco had a highly structured methodology that it rolled out. It did small cutovers nightly."

The age of some of CTCA’s buildings also was a factor. "The most challenging [conversion] was in Zion. It was built in the 1950s, and it’s the oldest hospital in our network," Eckes says. "The Tulsa facility was a lot easier because it’s our newest facility—it opened in 2005—and it had the core foundations already in place for networking and VoIP."

CTCA continues to build on its VoIP capabilities, and has plans to introduce increased network security measures; Cisco Teleworker, a program that lets call center agents work out of their homes; videoconferencing; telepresence; and a unified messaging system that will integrate voice, chat, email, and text messages onto a single platform. The entire plan is designed to move CTCA to a fully unified communications platform.

"I see the convergence of all our communications channels as a key to serving our patients in the most efficient manner," Eckes explains. "It still amazes me. I came to realize that some of the most critical operations at a hospital are in the communications area. Where we are today, and the functionality available, is phenomenal. We can draw a direct line between our telephone technology and our patient care."

Since implementing the system, CTCA has seen an overall growth of 35 percent to 40 percent, allowing it to serve nearly 50,000 patients each year. The average patient travels more than 500 miles to be treated at a CTCA facility.

At the heart of the system’s success is the relationship between the hospital and Cisco. "With the partnership approach that Cisco took with us, our Cisco account manager became an extension of the CTCA team," Eckes says.

And now Eckes wonders how CTCA ever managed without Cisco’s systems. "If you look at all the ways people communicate with us, it becomes unmanageable if it’s so scattered," he says.

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