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Function follows form for healthcare unified communications systems

Upgrading your healthcare facility's Voice-over-Internet-Protocol telephony? Here's advice for shopping for a new unified communications system.

Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) telephony systems have been able to gain significant popularity and replace traditional private branch exchange, or PBX, systems. Because they leveraging the same network as the rest of a company's data, VoIP systems help reduce costs and provide advanced functions that legacy voice systems can't. There are still a number of older systems being used today, but VoIP technology is the preferred option when it comes to implementing new telephony and unified communications systems.

One challenge that many IT executives face when selecting the right unified communications (UC) system is identifying the appropriate functionality while still ensuring that there is a clear return on investment associated with it. An ideal system would provide a clear reduction of costs, improved staff productivity, and ease of management and support. Beyond those, there are other important areas to consider when comparing unified communications systems.

Software-based unified communications and independent hardware

Some of the easier UC products to deploy in the marketplace are software based. These platforms can be loaded into existing infrastructure or into servers as software. This deployment model provides tremendous value for IT because it allows a facility to utilize its existing computing environment to host the telephony system and not be hardware dependent. This makes the platform highly available and easier to manage.

Integrated components for all UC needs

Unlike legacy VoIP systems, UC products offer additional features that enable end users to go beyond just telephony. When evaluating and selecting a new UC system, it's important to be sure that all the components being offered are from one vendor and are not from independent systems.

Comprehensive unified communications systems

The different components commonly offered in today's top UC platforms are as follows:

Instant messaging. Instant messaging provides a great alternative to traditional email. One benefit of instant messaging is that it provides the end user with the status and location of the person on the other end of the communication.

Telephony. This is one of the basic functions the system must be able to provide. The ability to dial from a desktop frees end users from using traditional handsets.

Voicemail to email. This function is available in almost all UC systems offered today. There are a few vendors, including Microsoft, that have been able to transcribe voicemails to text and attach that text to the body of an email.

Softphones. Some users may request the option of using a softphone instead of a handset for their telephony needs. These software-based phones offer all the features of phones integrated with specific enterprise resource planning or hospital registration systems.

Web conferencing needs. For users who are continuously managing different subscriptions to Web conferencing services, many of today's top UC vendors offer an integrated Web conferencing experience as part of their platform. This enables IT to eliminate third-party subscriptions and allows different departments to connect with outside entities.

Audio and video conferencing. Conferencing is on the rise because of the increasing number of remote hospital workers in administration and billing departments. With the added requirement that accountable care organizations collaborate on care, hospitals will see a significant value in using audio and video conferencing.

High availability. Implementing a comprehensive UC platform brings tangible improvements for an organization, but it also means an increased dependency on the system for communications and collaboration. Unlike traditional telephony systems, today's UC platforms have simpler methods for ensuring system redundancy. So, this would be a key area to review when a hospital or other health organization that has to ensure system uptime selects a UC platform.

Mobile friendliness. Consumers and business buyers are now starting to see smartphones, tablets and PCs as a single continuum of connected devices separated primarily by screen size, according to Bob O'Donnell, vice president at IDC. Employees' increasing use of mobile devices means that any new product or tool introduced to the enterprise would have to have a strong, established presence in the tablet and smartphone marketplace. Microsoft Lync 2013, which is compatible with iOS, Android and Windows tablets and mobile devices, is an example of how some vendors have been able to integrate UC successfully by making it mobile friendly.

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Customization and integration capabilities. IT managers in hospitals recognize that there are several areas of need that a telephony system must address. They include standard staff-paging systems, overhead paging, interactive voice response (IVR) systems that help patients with their billing, reminder systems, lab calling systems and many other applications that address specific needs. This means that any new UC platform must be able to accommodate those use cases, but also enable their possible consolidation and replacement. This means that software developers and system integrators will likely look for UC platforms that offer software development kits or application programming interfaces that will enable them to easily integrate their applications with the system.

Microsoft has been able to make many of its powerful server engines available for developers to maximize the functionality of their UC systems. This is also the case with Cisco's platform. One difference Microsoft offers is the integration of its speech engine, which gives software developers a full range of capabilities that can produce robust IVR systems.

Cloud readiness. "Cloud" is no longer a leading buzzword in 2013, but it is still buzz-worthy for many UC vendors introducing new products to the marketplace. UC vendors are facing customer demands to make their unified communications systems cloud capable. This capability is not only a must-have if vendors are to stay competitive, but it also expands many of a UC system's options. Whether it is a 100% on-premises or cloud-based system, or a hybrid system, UC vendors let their clients decide which model suits their needs best.

Scalability. With the many health system acquisitions and mergers, having a UC system that can easily scale without doing a full replacement is a must. This means that through the selection process IT executives and management must consider the possible limitations the system has or which additional features the system would need in order to be more adjustable.

The most important task when choosing a UC platform is to identify the different organizational needs the platform must address. Key requirements for an enterprise-grade platform are that it must provide robust call control, flexibility, mobility, ease of use and ease of management.

Reda Chouffani is vice president of development at Biz Technology Solutions Inc., which provides software design, development and deployment services for the healthcare industry. Let us know what you think about the story; email or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

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