How are resellers and MSPs supporting customers within the healthcare sector? Comms Business talks to the experts.
Channel businesses have a rich heritage in supporting the healthcare sector here in the UK. With lives at stake, the layered services offered by managed services providers can be a winning proposition. Yet the disruption of the pandemic has had an impact on the opportunities, challenges and market movements that are impacting partners selling into the sector.
The health sector has been placed under extreme pressure due to the pandemic. This has shifted which technologies are in demand in the sector. Neal Humphrey, head of healthcare sector for the UK at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, pinpointed the role technology has played in reducing in-person visits to hospitals and GP practices.
He said, “With increased pressure to reduce patient visits to hospital we saw a big interest in apps to support patient consultations from home. The big thing here was simplicity and speed. How to use bots to quickly integrate teleconsultation, UC and collaboration into existing citizen and clinical applications – that people were familiar with, and that did not require extra training.
“For a number of large hospital chains around the globe we successfully integrated our Rainbow CPaaS using bots into existing applications for the support of remote patient consultations. Using CPaaS and bots makes things easy for everyone; the user just uses the app they are familiar with and all the added communication services are embedded, hidden and automated. And IT benefit from a massive reduction in the heavy lifting that would have been required by them and their developers with more traditional integrations, so a real win, win scenario.
“Understandably another big demand we have seen is for soft-phone and UCaaS technologies. More and more staff are working from home and whilst the NHS MS Teams environment provides much of the collaboration and internal communications users require, it remains a silo separate from the PSTN, switchboard and medical telephony – and this causes a number of operational issues. So access to softphone connected to the critical UC and telephony has been mandatory for many NHS staff.
“We also saw a huge jump in the deployment of our Stellar Wi-Fi for to support new wards and clinical environments as well as extending the hospital WLAN to home workers.”
That perspective chimed with the view of Darryl Brick, vice president of partner sales, Cradlepoint, who agreed that remote consultations have been vital. Brick added that robust infrastructure is needed to make these solutions sustainable.
He said, “A trend that will continue in the healthcare sector is the increased use of digital solutions such as telemedicine, VR and AR treatments and medical simulations. While these can be easy to implement in towns and cities with good infrastructure, it can be much harder to ensure the same quality and availability in rural areas.
“In these situations, 4G and 5G wireless WAN can help as rather than waiting for dedicated fibre to be put in, the routers can be plugged in and are ready to go. This technology allows healthcare providers to set up pop-up clinics in rural areas that might struggle to reach a doctor or provide connectivity for patients who need to regularly check in with their doctors.
“As well as providing connectivity for patients in the home and providing care where they are, wireless WAN technology can also improve the effectiveness of ambulances. By enabling them to connect to a network whilst out on a call, the vehicle can receive updates on the situation in real-time while on their way to the emergency, helping reduce the time needed to assess the scene when paramedics arrive.
“It also provides real-time information on the location of ambulances, meaning dispatchers and hospitals can have a greater insight into when a patient might arrive, or if more resources need to be moved to certain areas to cope with demand.”
Dave O’Shaughnessy, healthcare practice leader at Avaya, said, “From what I have seen this year, there’s a heightened interest in digital solutions that help to shape and deliver improved patient experience and engagement. This is important as patients are essentially healthcare’s ‘customers’ who want to be able to connect and engage with their healthcare providers in the same way that they connect with people, businesses, and services in their personal lives – in whichever way they want, in the moment.
“The ability for healthcare’s digital customers to seamlessly connect and engage is best delivered through a CCaaS service, bringing together a range of digital channels – such as voice, video, chat, collaboration, social – into a unified and, most importantly, integrated contact centre environment from which a healthcare organisation can design and deliver their patient experience and engagement strategy.”
In this environment, the cloud is coming into the spotlight. Russell Tilsed, senior director, public sector at 8×8, said, ““As the healthcare sector has found itself delivering patient services both in-person and virtually, we are seeing increasing demand for cloud communications, contact centre, and front desk reception technologies. Whether supporting patient inquiries, virtual consultations, training, or team collaboration, this technology is needed to maintain the quality of service, regardless of patient and employee location.”
“8×8 has the privilege of working with numerous NHS Trusts across the UK. From handling patient inquiries and Covid-19 helplines, to conducting virtual surgical training and participating in patient consultations via video, our customers need an integrated solution that is tailored to their specific needs to actively explore all that’s possible when a traditionally in-person industry adopts cloud-based, collaborative technology.”
Jeff May, UK sales director at Konftel, highlighted the way these conferencing and collaboration solutions can be used by staff. He said, “People cannot physically be everywhere they are needed so remote meetings enable the critical exchange of information and for speedy informed decisions to be made, with no expense or time of travel.
“Training too can be done remotely so all required staff can be fully briefed and informed quickly and clearly.”
It is clear there has been rapid adoption of technology within the healthcare sector over the last decade, with progress sharply increasing throughout the pandemic. This pace is largely expected to continue, with artificial intelligence (AI) further stretching the boundaries of possibility.
Adoption of AI will of course start in less critical environments, but the healthcare sector is cautiously open to emerging use cases. Avaya’s O’Shaughnessy said, “AI solutions are still very much in their infancy in healthcare as there’s a hesitancy, which is natural to healthcare as a whole, to deploy fully AI-assisted or supported services or features. The reasons include uncertainty in how to best leverage AI Services, and the lack of sufficient volumes of patient or health data for AI Services to leverage via their algorithms in order to make ‘smart’ decisions.
“It is going to take some time for the digital data ‘feed’ to be of sufficient volume to ensure that decisions can be made autonomously, but we are seeing some rudimentary, simple self-services leveraging AI automation today, so that’s encouraging to see.”
Tilsed, from 8×8, discussed the need to join the dots between the siloes that can persist within heathcare settings. He said, “Just as technology evolves, so do the healthcare sector’s needs as confirmed by the Chancellor’s decision to boost spending to upgrade the NHS’ IT systems and digital health technology.
“What this means is that we are likely to see NHS trusts and foundations approaching tech companies to help them transform their services in new ways. In an effort to combat disjointed communications, for instance, the NHS trusts may explore low code, no code capabilities, which enable organisations with any level of technical capability to leverage digital channels and even embed video meetings into apps and websites in minutes.
“This not only helps employees communicate more effectively with each other, but allows for improved and streamlined customer and patient experiences through multiple channels.”
Business as usual
Humphrey, from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, pointed out the reality that – amidst the difficulties of the pandemic – simply maintaining close to ‘normal’ was a project in itself. He said, “Its true to say that business as usual is a priority during difficult times, with NHS IT staff concentrating on projects that have a real impact on hospitals operations.”
When asked whether the pandemic has changed purchasing habits in this sector, Humphrey said, “I’d say yes. Cash has become available more quickly to support specific projects driven by Covid. Softphone and UCaaS sales and to an extent VoWiFi have all ramped up, these technologies were needed anyway by the hospitals but it took Covid to energise the cashflow.
Avaya’s O’Shaughnessy said, “The past two years was mostly about ‘Keeping the Lights on’ for the majority of customers, avoiding service-disruption and the implementation of large projects requiring big teams to deliver them. However, the Pandemic has also been a time for reflection on how healthcare services were and could be accessed and delivered.
For example, when the spike in Remote Healthcare solutions quickly spun up, they were implemented as stand-alone, siloed solutions, not as part of a unified, interoperating workflow solution, so really just short-term quick fixes with no longer-term value. But now this door has opened, healthcare teams are seeing what could be possible if all the separate pieces of technology worked together in an integrated and holistic way. Hopefully, that genie is out of the Bottle for good.
There are plenty of products that can be tailored for specific use-cases. When asked if he had seen any partners creatively tailor a product specifically for healthcare customers, O’Shaughnessy, from Avaya, said, “Yes and no – some can see the direction that digital healthcare is moving towards, which is a more interoperable, automated digital experience.
“This direction requires partners to find and establish new audiences, new discussions and, most importantly of all, they need to speak in a new language to articulate the value of these digital solutions with this new healthcare audience. This is hard work, and some partners aren’t very skilled at it yet.
Humphrey, from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, added, “I mentioned previously the use of CPaaS as a highly customisable platform facilitating teleconsultations and integration with other applications, but if we look to the long term there is a big play for partners. As a vendor I have more and more conversations with hospitals about integration.
“The integration of clinical, location services, BMS, unified communication and collaboration is the Holy Grail for CIOs. This is what enables decisions to be made faster, improve patient safety, improve efficiency and so forms part of their long-term strategy. Luckily we have these integrations and plug-in’s ready, off the shelf, in our IQM platform and this enables our partners to have a very different proposition, one that breaks all the communication silos present in today’s hospitals.”
This feature appeared in our February 2022 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.