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Voice over Internet Protocol connections

By Pat Traynor

Physicians and medical staff are almost never in one place for an extended period of time. But thanks to the rise of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony, doctors and nurses can be found wherever they are. With the new technology, doctors can accurately track the amount of time spent with patients and consulting with other health care professionals through an elaborate call log organized by date and time. They can also set up a “virtual meeting” with other doctors all over the country to converse on important new vaccinations or epidemic-causing problems

VoIP calls function almost like e-mail. They differ from conventional phone calls because sounds are converted into packets of data and sent through the Internet or private networks. The separate packets are then reassembled as sound on the other end of the phone call, while regular phone calls are simply converted into electronic signals and sent over an elaborate network of switches in a dedicated circuit.

Physicians and other health care professionals can take their VoIP phone number wherever they go: all they need is a telephone adapter and a broadband connection. Whether they’re using a wireless-enabled laptop with a softphone installed in the airport or working from a temporary office, their phone call will reach them; “phone tag” is virtually eliminated.

The worldwide market for VOIP-based business services is growing at a robust pace and will reach $23 billion by the year 2007, according to Tom Valovic, program director for IP Telephony, IDC, a global market intelligence and IT advisory firm. VOIP will deliver a new wave of capabilities to the enterprise. Mobility is one of these new features and has special applicability in health care settings and environments.

What’s the main advantage? It’s simpler to provide advanced features and capabilities to users cost-efficiently.

VoIP plans now offered give customers many additional features not possible with conventional phone systems. For instance, you can receive calls at your convenience except in case of an emergency.

You can also access specific call logs to review all calls placed and received by date and time; doctors and administrators will be able to track time spent with patients and fellow health care professionals with greater accuracy. And you have the ability to access all e-mail, voice-mail and fax messages from a single mailbox. In other words, you can stop the oversaturation of messages that comes with a voice-mail telling you to check your e-mail to confirm whether or not you got that fax.

Most important for businesses, VoIP telephony combines voice (telephone) and data (broadband) lines of communication into a single unified line, eliminating the need for medical practices to maintain separate networks – saving firms money and bandwidth.

In past years, the biggest drawback of VoIP has been reliability and quality, but that’s changing too. Recent improvements have put voice quality on par with the traditional circuit-switched voice networks, with providers offering service level guarantees on voice quality and exceptional (99.99 percent) reliability.

VoIP solutions also let IT administrators use software to handle physical phone moves and make feature changes with one keystroke or the click of a mouse. Besides “Do Not Disturb,” “Call Log,” and unified mailbox features, there are other features that only come with a VoIP solution. Want to set up a “virtual meeting” between nine other health care professionals to discuss a new procedure or drug? Not a problem. Want to switch calls without hanging up? Go ahead.

In addition, connecting phone calls over IP may eventually lead to the possibility of tying voice streams with e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing, all over one line. VoIP may finally make video telephones practical. An Internet address book in an e-mail program can now become your gateway to dialing a number with the click of a mouse.

Many health care facilities across the country, ranging from large hospitals to small medical practices, are already utilizing VoIP technology to conduct multiple conference calls, set-up specific times over the Internet to allow incoming calls to ring instead of going to voicemail and enable doctors to work from separate locations using the same VoIP phone number.

Obviously VoIP won’t replace traditional phone systems overnight; after all, nearly one million rotary phones are still in use in the United States, even though Touch Tone phones were introduced nearly 40 years ago. But VoIP’s flexibility is setting the fundamental path and pace for telephony future. As more businesses adopt VoIP telephony, it will gradually become the standard telephone system.

The combination of business and consumer adoption of VoIP technology and applications represents the most significant technology shift in telecommunications in decades, offering tremendous value to all customers by leveraging the efficiencies and advanced communications capabilities of IP-based technology. Physicians, nurses and administrators will not only be able to communicate with a larger field of colleagues, but do so using advanced features not available with traditional phone lines and much lower long-distance bills.

At the same time, upgrades to new technologies are always a challenge for IT managers. As more companies grapple with the hardships of network convergence, they want to ensure service reliability and an easy migration path to new technologies like VoIP, without stranding their existing investments.

Many physicians and health care providers have found that, with the right service solution, the migration road to VoIP does not need to be a rocky one. They have realized greater savings and efficiencies, while assuming more direct control over their network that’s providing richer communications features and functionality than they ever thought possible.

Pat Traynor is vice president of AT&T Business VoIP Services in Bedminster, NJ.

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