Like a relentless tide of misfortune, the patients pour into the University of Kentucky Hospital Emergency Department complaining of everything from dehydration to gunshot wounds.
Like every ER in the country, the U.K. Hospital is overused and understaffed.
As the only trauma center for all of eastern and central Kentucky, the hospital administers emergency care to a constant stream of the afflicted—an average of 40,000 a year—with a staff of little more than 200. Overwhelmed nurses and doctors bounce from bed to bed treating patients amid the chaos.
But the U.K. Hospital is a little less chaotic today than it was just a year ago.
The unnerving pages that blare through the typical emergency room have mostly stopped. Frantic nurses no longer run the halls chasing down doctors. Pagers and cell phones have been relegated to the locker rooms.
Thats because in April the hospital began using a voice-over-IP communications system that allows nurses and doctors to contact each other instantly, without ever leaving a patients bedside.
Now, employees wear a two-ounce communicator clip on their lapels that uses speech recognition to contact other employees, and then opens up a two-way conversation thats carried over the wireless LAN the hospital already had in place.
"I just press the button and say the name of the person I want to speak to," says Nurse Manager Maggie Borders. "Its ridiculous how much trouble we used to go through for those quick communications, those one-word answers."
The University of Kentucky Hospital represents a rare example of the potential for IP telephony to redefine the workplace. But the truth is that few companies currently evaluating the technology have looked beyond the technologys ability to save some money on long-distance phone bills—a short-sighted benefit that may not exist for much longer anyway.
While everyone seems to agree that VoIP is a powerful technology that will eventually render traditional phone service obsolete, few can articulate the kind of effect it will have, if any, on strategic business processes and strategies. All of which is conspiring to dampen the sense of urgency that vendors of IP telephony equipment have worked so hard to create.
It is still early, however, and it may be that the full potential of IP telephony is still poorly understood.
"When television first came, the early shows had people just standing up in front of a microphone, basically doing radio on TV," says Joe Glynn, vice president of product strategy at Qwest Communications International Inc., a Denver-based telecommunications carrier with more than four million long-distance customers in its 14-state service region.
"They werent taking advantage of the new platform, they couldnt even conceive of the possibilities. Thats largely where VoIP is right now."