Every time someone dies in Kane County, Ill., without an attending physician or in obscure circumstances, the coroners office is called upon to determine the cause of death. The people of the county depend on the coroner to track each of those cases and maintain clear reporting and investigation on them. Over the years, the county population has grown, and with that growth the case load for the examiners office has increased steadily as well—but without a similar increase in people power. Knowing that it couldnt find funding for additional personnel, the coroners office began to look for ways to automate its reporting practices.
For many years, the coroners office followed an outmoded process that combined very old computers and a huge number of paper-based forms to track progress on cases.
“The system we had in place hadnt been serviceable in about seven years,” said Chuck West, Kane County coroner, in Geneva. “We were doing a lot of handwritten reports.”
Meanwhile, the population of Kane County has grown significantly over the last five years. “Growth in this county is estimated to triple in the next couple of years,” West said. “Two of the top 10 growing cities in the state are in our county.”
At the same time, the number of coroners office personnel had remained unchanged. The end result was huge amounts of paper to be stored and steadily declining employee productivity.
The influx of cases was handled by seven investigators and a four-member support staff. These workers spent their time handwriting reports and forms. All death certificates, cremation permits and burial permits had to be generated on typewriters—and redone if errors were made, West said. Reports were written on archaic computers that lacked sufficient memory, processing speed or hard disk space to handle the work load. Each case required 60 different forms.
As many as 2,500 cases come through the office each year—for a total of 150,000 paper forms annually. That number translates into approximately one form every 3 minutes for every work day, the coroners office estimated.
After an unsuccessful search for a prepackaged system, the office asked a handful of systems integrators to try to create a system to meet its needs. When the office approached CDW-Government, the solution provider knew it would need to partner with another provider to make the system work.
“Kane County came to us with specific business needs [to eliminate redundant data inputting and form generation], and we went out and met with them and talked about their current issues,” said Alan Weiss, senior director of the Great Lakes region of CDW-G, in Chicago. “Then we identified Ta-Kenset [Research Laboratories, also in Chicago] as a partner who could do the forms design, so we brought them into the scenario and we all sat down and tried to figure out the best way to do what they wanted to accomplish.”
The partnership was a first-time collaboration between the companies. CDW-G designed and implemented the system, and Ta-Kenset handled designing the forms.
“As CDW identifies solutions around digital workflow and document management, we are always looking for best-of-breed partners,” Weiss said. “Ta-Kenset stepped up as we worked to design the solution. Its been fantastic, and we certainly intend to do more work with them.”
At a meeting that brought together representatives from CDW-G, Ta-Kenset and Toshiba (which had been selected as the vendor of choice for the system hardware), the coroners office outlined some basic requirements for the system. The office wanted to eliminate the need to enter the same data multiple times, allow examiners to enter and find data quickly and generate reports easily, centralize its data storage, allow examiners to access the system anywhere and any time, and have multiple security levels to keep data safe.
“The tablet PC interface had to function as closely as paper and pen as much as possible,” said Michael Ford, chief technology officer at Ta-Kenset. “The majority of the staff was unsure if they could switch from the old methods of data entry to a digital format. In a department such as the coroners office, operating in a timely manner is critical.”
Although the county had estimated a project timeline of 18 to 24 months, CDW-G and Ta-Kenset worked together to get the system up and running in just nine months.
“We modeled the digital paper and IE [Internet Explorer] browser-based forms from existing Kane County paper-based coroner investigation intake forms,” Ford said. “In addition, we took the opportunity to physically observe the staff and walked through every step of their process to get a sense of how the input of data could be streamlined.”
The result was the COAS (Coroners Office Automation System), which combined wireless mobility technology with a paperless office suite. The system went live on Jan. 1, 2004.
Because the coroners office deals with highly sensitive, private information, the new system provides various levels of security that change according to the information being accessed and the clearance of the person using the system. The coroner, for example, is allowed to edit data, while some administrative personnel need only to view and print data.
Within the next year, the coroners office will add computerized pens to the system. “With these pens, we would write on the form and the information would be downloaded into the computer itself,” West said. “We have the pens, but we dont have the final technology to use them with the system. We are working with CDW on that now.”
In the future, the coroners office also plans to allow citizens to request death certificates and burial permits online and will implement additional security measures to ensure security around that process. Kane County officials also hope to convert many of its offices to automated paperless systems over the next five years to save time, improve accuracy and reduce storage needs, as well as improve the ability of different county agencies to work together.
“Our program has stimulated the state to start looking at computerized death certificates,” West said. “Because of what weve done in here, the county has begun to look at other departments in the county to see how they can use the technology to implement similar programs in all of our departments.”
Hailey Lynne McKeefry is a freelance writer based in Belmont, Calif. Contact her at [email protected]
- Case File: Kane County Coroners Office, Geneva, Ill.
- Organizational snapshot: Coroners office consisting of seven investigators and four support staff
- Business problem: The manual death reporting system was being overwhelmed as the number of residents in the county increased—150,000 paper forms for 2,500 cases annually
- Technology partners: CDW-Government and Ta-Kenset, both in Chicago
- Recommended solution: Toshiba Protégé M200 tablet PCs and a paperless office system
- Results: Time spent doing paperwork is cut in half, and law enforcement and families receive final reports in hours rather than days