Telehealth has become the new front line for treating the sudden surge in patients across the US during the coronavirus pandemic Uniquely situated to distance the noninfected from the contagious and quarantined, digital services provide a safety net for patients and providers alike. In early March, OSF HealthCare quickly escalated their digital efforts by creating a pandemic response call center and offering a COVID-19-specific Al Virtual Assistant, enabling thousands of patient visits to be redirected from clinics to telehealth services. While many systems throughout the country experience spotty connections, network crashes, and long wait times for virtual services, OSF seamlessly suited up and began servicing their population.
Coinciding with this amplification of telehealth services, OSF increased its physical implement with tech-ready tents erected in hospital parking lots to ensure they are ready to triage patients when needed. Deploying such sweeping changes within days was possible thanks to a robust fiberoptic network and innovations made on the fly by OSF’s network support provider, Pointcore Network Services (PCNS). As PCNS tackled the network’s back-end needs, OSF focused on getting medical providers and supplies prepped and in place for the expected influx of patients.
Managing the Crisis
The swift spread of coronavirus drove OSF to quickly build a COVID-19 Pandemic Digital Response Center that was completely separate from any of its other services. The strategy was to establish a model they could replicate in the future. The center needed to be segregated from their current phone system to ensure zero disruption to the already high volume of calls OSFHealthCare receives. Separately staffed with doctors, nurses, and call center agents, it was developed to be a stand-alone response center at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. “OSF leadership told us if a thousand people want to call us, no matter where they are, we want to answer their calls,” says Collin Summers, Network Director for PCNS.
Within five days, OSF went live with a COVID-19 telephone-triage hotline comprised of 100 phone stations in a large converted conference room and an additional 50 remote lines connected to telecommuters. PCNS was able to rapidly deploy phones, build a brand new digital workflow, and exponentially increase capacity through creative problem-solving. One key element was installing SIP trunking, a system that connects phone calls through the internet and is capable of handling tens of thousands of incoming calls. PCNS also brought in five PRI lines, adding capacity for 130 simultaneous outgoing calls. The self-contained environment ensured a massive influx of phone usage would not overload the hospital system. In the first two days 15,000 minutes of incoming calls surged across call center lines.
United States Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL) toured the COVID-19 Pandemic Digital Response Center Wednesday, March 18. Bustos praised OSF for its work, saying, “I want to offer my congratulations and compliments to OSF-spending millions of dollars, just over the last week, to get this operation up and running.”
Also during this time, PCNS enhanced the OSF HealthCare remote-worker network structure. PCNS networking professionals upgraded the infrastructure to go from 1,500 to 5,000 concurrent VPN connections over a span of a few days. Hospital and clinic staff who weren’t needed for direct patient care, including non-medical personnel, began working from home.
The next phase for managing the pandemic was to erect patient-care tents in hospital parking lots, complete with electrical power and network connections that accommodated their Epic network. With evolving patient and caregiver needs, PCNS continued to innovate and drive forward the solutions needed in a time of crisis.
Over the last decade, OSF prepared for its digital future, envisioning services, functions, and connectivity that met projected and unforeseen needs. To make that happen, Fiberutilities Group (FG), one of the joint owners of PCNS, developed OSF’s robust Wide Area Network (WAN) fiber ring infrastructure, a private fiber network that directly connects all OSF hospitals and many clinics. The network design was exclusively built to support OSF’s requirements and business objectives. Its resilient and redundant architecture enables digital agility while driving down costs, enhancing efficiency, and increasing security.
“We built resiliency into the WAN design, and when you combine that with the automation of the LAN fabric technology, we can quickly and securely add new devices while ensuring the network transport is always available,” says Steve Knapp, President and Chief Financial Officer for FG. “Whether it’s in time of crisis or normal business, our teams assess the systems, the organizational needs, and project forward. They’re always guiding our partners toward what their network should be. Our people have broad expertise and unique capacity to think on the run. They go and get the job done in really cool ways.”