Geoff Caplan

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Impacting profitability

As one component of your financial ledger, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service has th potential to positively affect the bottom line.

John Curry, founder and president of Curry IP Solutions, has been providing telecommunications expertise to businesses and individuals for more than 30 years. He has been in the forefront of VoIP, analyzing how best to deploy VoIP for improved business operations while minimizing overall telecommunications costs.

Smart Business spoke with Curry about how technology can be better utilized and its impact on the bottom line.

How important is it for a small to mid-size company’s telephone system to emulate a large company’s telephone system?

The goal is to make communications flow easily and to not create any bottlenecks. Your phone system can be used to direct and funnel customers to the appropriate department or channel.

I dislike calling a large company that has a complex auto attendant system that after the fifth selection disconnects me or does not recognize my selection. What if my selection is the repair department and not the tech support and the employee does not know how to transfer the call to the right extension?

No matter how large or small the organization is, the system needs to be designed to overcome any awkwardness experienced by the caller. You should also coach your staff to listen for complaints from consumers trying to maneuver around your system. I am not suggesting you keep a phone vendor on staff, but I do suggest that your initial contract should allow for modifications for a period of time while you become accustomed to the new technology.

How important is every call getting to the right person, quickly and professionally?

It’s very important. Let’s face it. We all have busy lives and we don’t like to wait. We have become an instant society. We want it now.

I believe every business recognizes the need to serve its customers. To do this, you need the consumer to get to the right person in the most efficient manner. You also need your staff to know how the system works for their and the company’s benefit as well.

I am keen on automation. I feel my contact information should be a part of the information I communicate to my doctor, dentist, insurance company or to anyone I do business with on a regular basis.. When I dial a phone number, wouldn’t it be helpful if my caller ID — which is part of my contact information — would direct me to the agent or sales representative or pulled up my patient information on the computer screen at the doctor’s office? These features can really work well if implemented properly.

Does the sophistication of a telephone system impact a company’s bottom line?

In some ways, it may eliminate an employee or two. Many companies like the personal touch to have all callers greeted by an operator. Due to this, servicing all callers in a timely manner may take two operators. Newer systems are tied into the operator’s desk, which may show an icon for each person in or out, online or offline. This increases the efficiency and information at hand by the operator, who can now say, ‘John Smith is not in at the moment. Would you like to speak to John Doe, his associate in sales?’ or, ‘I can transfer you to his voice mail.’ Some vendors offer a buyback or upgrade program.

How can a telephone system increase productivity for a positive bottom-line impact?

The newer phones have been simplified to provide some direction on call transfer, call forwarding and conference calling. I still sometimes have difficulty splitting a conference call and dropping the right person. The new systems have solved that problem by provided directions for their features.k a phone? ‘Meet-me bridges’ are also available, that provide the ability to schedule meetings in advance.

Do IP systems have any other advantages?

A few years ago, if I were in a remote office, I would need to have a phone line in my office along with a data connection. This phone line would run about $75 per month; fax would be about $50 and the data line would be about $75. When a call was placed to or from the home office, there would be a usage charge. If someone wanted me, he or she would need to know my home office number as well as the corporate number. So, on average, my home office cost the company $250 per month, and in a way it became an island unto itself.

With the newer systems, I would just need a high-speed Internet connection at my home office, which is about $25 to $50 per month. The phone number that is displayed on my home service is the corporate phone number. If I’m working remotely or on a business trip, I still can be reached by someone dialing our company’s main number and my extension and the system finds me by ringing either my cell phone or the the IP phone wherever I am located.

JOHN CURRY is founder and president of Curry IP Solutions. He has been providing telecommunications expertise to businesses and individuals for more than 30 years. Reach him at (412) 307-3600, ext. 9007 or john@curryip.com.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Intelligent communications

One of the new buzzwords in the world of high technology is “intelligent communications.”

As a leader in the design and implementation of VoIP solutions, John Curry of Curry IP Solutions offers unique insights into utilizing intelligent communications as an effective road map to cost-effective telecommunications solutions.

“We must understand that the end result of intelligent communications is to make contacting your organization a pleasurable experience that exceeds your competitor’s,” says Curry. “This contact may be via telephone, cell phone, Blackberry, instant message or e-mail, into your voice mail or call center. It is now possible to manage all of these various methods, improve your efficiencies and lower your expenses.”

Smart Business spoke to Curry to get more details about intelligent communications.

How and when should this type of strategy be considered and implemented?

It’s not a question of should. All businesses must work toward intelligent communications or they will be left behind.

Your effectiveness depends on how responsive you are to resolving your customers’ needs within your job function. Getting customers to the right sales or support personnel has never been easier. Databases can direct calls by ZIP code or telephone number, product or service. Voice mails can now be e-mailed, streamlining delegation of tasks. If you use push-to-talk, you will enjoy the IM capabilities of the Blackberry that will keep your team informed with an audit trail. No longer should you put a customer though voice mail hell, making 20 selections before being placed in a queue.

Is this type of strategy scalable?

Most certainly. There are new phone systems that are scaleable for 20,200 or 2,000 fewer stations — with awesome features and functionality that the old phone systems just can’t provide.

You may have only looked at your company handling a regional or limited geographical area. That is the way it used to be. Now you can expand your sales force nationally or internationally. With VoIP remote extensions, the new IP systems provide immediate access to the remote sales force. Training and coaching can be done via the Web with online meetings, meet-me conference bridges and remote phone monitoring for scheduled soft coaching.

Please discuss these issues and their impact on an intelligent communications plan.

If you are completely lost on how your organization can benefit by converging all of your communication methods, call a consultant. If you want to try to develop your own intelligent communications, you need to begin to layout a road map identifying where you are today and where and when you want to get to your end result.

I would suspect your organization uses some type of e-mail or IM, along with Web access to manage your products and services. With the introduction of an IP phone system, you can immediately begin to establish a remote sales and tech support staff. This remote staff can grow without the need for capital investment on your behalf for space at your main office location. Monitoring their productivity is no different than your current process, but it is also enhanced. You can immediately review the activity of their inbound or outbound IP phone communications, and listen in to their conversations to provide soft coaching. This staff is further accessible through your main auto attendant, which can ring a home office phone, then roll to the cell. ‘No answer’ leaves voice mail that is e-mailed in a .wav file. This file may be passed to a broadcast for others to immediately attend or sent to their e-mail account.

Furthermore, you can leverage your investment if you have multiple sites. For example, you have 10 offices with 20 stations at each. You can now purchase one system, have it centrally located and install only IP phones at each of the 10 offices, immediately reducing your capital expenses and introducing intelligent communications. If one of your locations relocates, people there need only plug their IP phones in at the new location and begin working without any disruption.

Migration from old phone services to newer technology can be slow and methodical, reducing any possibility of service disruption.

What about capabilities?

Capabilities are endless, but it is up to you how much you are willing to embrace intelligent communications. This is something you should outline in your road map with a timeline.

How can customized consulting services assist with intelligent communications?

There are so many choices and decisions to be made in the technology arena, as well as gray areas of responsibility. Look for a VoIP service provider that also is a system integrator who understands the capabilities of both.

JOHN CURRY is founder and president of Curry IP Solutions. He has been providing telecommunications expertise to businesses and individuals for more than 30 years. Reach him at (412) 307-3600, ext. 9007 or john@curryip.com.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

VoIP or analog phone?

Based on the word of a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) expert, the main concern when it comes to choosing VoIP phone services over traditional phone lines (analog) is reliability.

“When VoIP was launched, it was an exciting time in telecom,” says Jonathan Curry, vice president of sales and marketing for Curry IP Solutions. “But the companies that got out there first expanded hard and fast to try and meet the demand. Unfortunately, now they are overextended. When that occurs, quality and reliability sometimes can suffer.”

Smart Business spoke with Curry about the current state of VoIP and what challenging situations are typically encountered by a VoIP sales professional.

How would you describe the current state of VoIP business use nationally?

When VoIP launched, it seemed like the sky was the limit. Now, we are seeing a bit of a leveling off. Customers are asking more questions, trying to obtain crossover solutions that let them only move one-half of their lines to VoIP — and one-half to remain in the analog world. This solution allows them to use trusted names like Avaya when it comes to equipment and to try out the newer VoIP services and see what they are all about.

How does the use of business VoIP in Pittsburgh compare to elsewhere?

This area of the country is sometimes a bit slower to react to technological advances than, say, California. But Pittsburghers recognize and appreciate hardworking companies that have proven reliability. So, while VoIP can be a tougher sell here, many companies are beginning to move in that direction.

I have no doubt that Pittsburgh soon will be among the top users of VoIP. One of the reasons I believe that is that recently, Pittsburgh received a citywide Wi-Fi network. This network could allow business owners and employees greater mobility. It may also allow users to sit outside of PPG Place on a sunny afternoon and enjoy the sun while taking and receiving calls like they were sitting at their desks.

Do some situations warrant a business remaining with its analog phone system?

If the business does not have access to a good quality broadband service, then I would recommend it stay with its current analog system. The reason is that the quality of the broadband service affects the quality of the VoIP service. However, good quality broadband is being rapidly deployed, so the need to stay with an analog system is only temporary.

How do you price a VoIP system?

First and foremost, you have to listen to customers’ needs. I find out what their current needs are, but it’s important also to find out what they are planning in the future of their business. Then I can determine what would be the best solution that can easily grow along with them.

You always want to consider size of the company, number of employees, types of usage and comfort level with new technologies. However, I think it goes back to their current needs and future expectations to find the right fit for them.

Describe the timeline of a typical day you encounter as a VoIP sales professional.

My day begins with a quick check of e-mail and voicemail messages using my e-mail program. Since all my voicemails are e-mailed to me, it’s easy to see what needs to get done that day, what issues need to get resolved and what customers need. Because I’m already in my e-mail program, it’s easy to resend proposals or drop a line to a warm lead. Also, I can send any new lead issues that came up to other sales associates within our group now that they have a copy of the voicemail, as well as any notes I may want to add, so that they can effectively follow up with leads and issues.

Next, it’s time to hit the road for appointments or meetings. So I turn on the forwarding feature on my desk phone so that all of my calls come straight to my cell. This way, I don’t have to give customers my cell phone number and I can control when I am available. Since their caller ID is passed to my cell phone, I can always know who is calling before I pick up the phone.

At the end of the day, I can head back into the office to catch up on any e-mails or calls I missed and get home in time for dinner. VoIP makes the sales professional not only more accessible and capable of doing a better job, but more productive with the hours available to him or her.

How do you describe yourself based upon your level of experience?

My experiences in telecom are varied. When you work with family, it’s not as much about what you can do; it’s a lot more about what else you can do to get the job done. I have been asked to do it all. But we all have our strengths, so the bulk of my experience has been in the sales and marketing side, where I have been working intensely in the development of Curry IP Solutions.

JONATHAN CURRY is vice president of sales and marketing for Curry IP Solutions (www.curryip.com), which caters to business clients. Reach him at jrcurry@curryip.com or (412) 307-3600, ext. 9002.

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Engaging employees

Employers are increasingly concerned about finding ways to improve employee productivity while reducing the number of sick days and health insurance claims.

Smart Business spoke with Michael Taylor, executive director of marketing and communications for UPMC Health Plan, about how to generate employee interest in wellness programs.

Why should an employer consider implementing a wellness program?

With the continued rise of medical costs, it is estimated that one-half or more of employer earnings will go toward the care of employees. Developing creative health promotion activities that encourage people to manage their weight, quit tobacco or get more exercise will help contain costs and keep your employees healthy over time. Research shows that healthy employees get sick less often, miss fewer days of work, and have fewer workers’ compensation claims. Morale and productivity will improve, too.

How can you get your employees interested in a wellness program?

Distributing a health interest survey is an important first step. Will employees participate in a lunchtime yoga class or is a midday walk more appropriate? Are they looking for healthier food in the cafeteria or would a large-scale health screening event be more valuable? Their answers will help guide you.

Distributing a health risk assessment will also help you gather important data about employees’ health. This confidential questionnaire will identify possible health risks and provide an action plan to offer steps to improve their health. It also a tool by which the success of the program is measured.

Whatever programs you choose, securing support from senior management sends the message that your company really cares about employees’ health. You’ll need their support when it comes to funding new programs, allowing time off to exercise at lunch, or offering incentives. Participants will feel mentally and physically better about themselves, which improves morale and makes a better work environment for everyone. And the company will benefit from having healthier employees, so everybody wins.

How do you get the message out?

Generating buzz takes a communications strategy, successful tactics and a commitment from leadership. Nothing beats repetition. Consider e-mail blasts, fliers, posters, and giveaways to pique your employees’ interest. You may also want to develop a standard design template and color palette to strengthen the branding of your program. Also:

  • Add healthy snacks in your vending machines or feature lean meals in your cafeteria. Promote them regularly.

  • Design fun, attention-grabbing signs around that encourage your employees to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Rotate the signs.

  • Offer regularly scheduled lunchtime lectures on wellness. Distribute postcards around the office to act as reminders and appoint internal champions to drum up participation.

  • Promote attendance at exercise classes offered on-site before and after work.

  • Include articles or recipes in employee newsletters that promote healthy activity and healthy eating.

Sending the message that you care about your employees’ well-being will help reinforce their healthy behavior.

How can you get your employees to be excited about wellness programs?

Creating a wellness committee to support your new programs is critical to transforming your company’s culture. A wellness committee can help empower your staff to be more active and adopt positive behaviors that support a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

Recruit the fit and those challenged to live a healthy lifestyle, smokers and non-smokers, and a range of professionals such as human resources managers, employee health representatives and marketing experts. The more diverse your core group is, the more likely you are to create enthusiasm in all parts of your workplace and the easier it will be to spread the message about the program. A wellness committee also can help you get a handle on how these programs are being accepted by the employees, gather information about what programs work, and determine what kind of incentives would be most popular.

Are incentives really necessary?

Rewarding participants is critical to engaging them long-term. Let’s say you establish a ‘weight race’ among employees. You could reward the winning team with a day off or provide discounts to local merchants, or even free plane tickets. As you might imagine, the incentives you provide can spread excitement about your program and motivate more people to be involved.

MICHAEL TAYLOR is executive director of marketing and communications for UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh. Reach him at (412) 454-7534 or taylorm2@upmc.edu.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Experiences with VoIP

The importance of cost-effective and functional telecommunications for small businesses cannot be overestimated. As a customer of Curry IP, a Pittsburgh-based telecommunications provider, Paul Furiga, ABC, president of WordWrite Communications LLC, knows firsthand the value of efficient communications.

Smart Business discussed with Furiga his experience with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) solutions and its impact on his business.

How has the use of VoIP compared to traditional analog telecommunications systems?

We particularly appreciate the electronic archiving of messages and our ability to receive and forward them via e-mail. Voice over Internet Protocol enables us to work from anywhere in the world and still have access to our phone system, which is fantastic.

Can you cite how your telecommunications provider has had or will have a direct impact on your ability to communicate more effectively?

Local service is a huge benefit for us — most of the best-known VoIP companies (including the one we just left) spend a lot on advertising but are lacking in personal service. We have experienced a huge difference working directly with someone who can tweak our phone system and bring it to ultimate performance.

Please describe the phone system you are currently using and its most important features and capabilities.

Right now we are transitioning to a portable small business system that includes IP phones. The functionality of the IP phones is fantastic. They are almost like self-contained computers and they boast features that plain old analog telephones can’t match.

Why did you choose Curry IP for system implementation?

I don’t care what any ad claims — messing with your phone service is not ‘plug and play.’ When your telecom needs include the merging of broadband service, local phone company number portability and various other elements of technology, things can get complicated. Once it’s integrated, your phone system should optimize performance of the whole system together. We needed a trusted navigator to help us steer through those rocks without crashing.

What considerations would you point out for other businesses who might be considering a switch from an analog telephone system?

You should make an informed decision by consulting an expert who will provide you a fair, balanced analysis. Voice over Internet Protocol may not be right for everyone, but it works for us and can for many businesses.

Do you believe that VoIP is revolutionizing the way your business communicates? How so?

Phone service used to be about geography. It depended on where your business was located. You were usually stuck with whatever company had the geographic right to provide the service, no matter what they charged or how poor their services might be. In addition, their features or rates could be expensive. Voice over Internet Protocol provides the choice to break free of those restrictions and take control of one of your most important communications asset: your phone service.

Why did you choose this system?

Flexibility. We are a fast-growing company (better than 20 percent a year) and when we need to grow our staff and offices, it needs to happen fast and without a hitch.

Does your VoIP system enable your company to be more competitive and responsive?

Absolutely. Even as a small company, we now have tools that match the flexibility and breadth of much larger competitors, without paying for the additional infrastructure and support.

What kind of cost savings have you realized with VoIP?

All of our long distance is covered in our low monthly base cost. We make calls all over the country to major national media and we don’t have to worry about costs. In addition, we have added an inbound 800 number for the media to use in calling us. This service has been very easy to do and it is also very cost-effective.

JOHN CURRY of Curry IP Solutions has been providing telecommunications expertise to businesses and individuals for more than 30 years. Reach him at (412) 307-3600, ext. 9007, or john@curryip.com. PAUL FURIGA, ABC, can be reached at WordWrite Communications LLC in Wexford, Pa., at (412) 894-8766 or paul.furiga@wordwritepr.com.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Keeping costs to a minimum

Employers frequently misunderstand how workers’ compensation should be applied in various situations. Work-place-related incidents occur daily that are of varying degrees of severity.

Smart Business spoke with David Weir, president of UPMC Work Partners, about the importance of employer familiarity with workers’ compensation and its impact on every level of the workplace.

What workers qualify for compensation?

Workers’ compensation is a state-mandated benefit that compensates a staff member who suffers a work-related injury or occupational illness.

The program was established to reimburse injured workers for lost wages and reasonable medical expenses that are a result of an occupational injury or illness. ‘Reasonable medical expenses’ typically means all costs related to an employee’s medical care such as doctor visits, X-rays, physical therapy and medications.

In Pennsylvania, employers must provide coverage for all employees, including seasonal and part-time.

What can an employer do to manage the cost of workers’ compensation premiums?

This can become complicated, particularly when a case is in litigation or complex medical issues are involved. Several basic elements comprise all well-managed programs.

  • A solid loss prevention and safety program potentially can reduce the number of workers’ compensation cases. It can get tricky, but if you can keep employees from getting hurt, it is a great first step.

  • Access to prompt quality care when an injury/illness occurs is critical. The key here is to establish medical panels with physicians/medical providers that have experience in the types of injuries or illness that you expect to occur. You should also cover the geographical area of your employees, and have an understanding of workers’ compensation laws, along with your company’s return-to-work policies and practices. It is important that these providers communicate with the people managing the claims.

  • A structured transitional or return-to-work (RTW) policy enables the injured worker to remain in a temporary job assignment while recovering from the injury. In developing an RTW program or transitional work policy, it is recommended that you consult legal or vocational experts.

What cost-containment tools are available?

An employer can utilize a variety of tools to minimize his or her costs while still providing excellent coverage for employees.

One key tool is establishing a customized physician panel that can accommodate the type of work-related illnesses and injuries that an employer can anticipate occurring in the workplace. Under Pennsylvania law, the employee must obtain treatment from one of the physicians on the panel for the first 90 days. This arrangement ensures the employee has prompt access to medical care, minimizes time lost from work and provides preferential pricing.

Other tools include making a transitional/modified work assignment available to the injured employee, and utilizing strong pharmacy, physical therapy and diagnostic network programs.

What should an employer know about managing claims?

An important element is to use a professionally trained and experienced claims adjustor/examiner. That person needs to have a reasonable case load — about 120 to 150 files. The adjustor needs an adequate support staff and a user-friendly technological system to effectively manage those files. Otherwise, what you are doing is processing claims, not managing those claims. Effectively managing claims can take weeks off the amount of time a claim stays open and can save an employer wages and/or medical dollars.

Many employers choose to have their workers’ compensation claims managed by an outside party that can oversee the entire operation.

Often, the outside party will use a team approach. The team should include claims examiners, claims technicians, nurse case managers, vocational specialists and others. But what everyone should understand is that the most important person on the team is the employee. Keeping the employee motivated and cooperative is essential in speeding recovery.

We like to call managing claims an art form. You need the right tools, you need the right experience and you need to be able to recognize its true costs.

How do you know if your workers’ compensation claims are being effectively managed?

To successfully manage workers’ compensation, you have to measure your program’s performance. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. That’s as true of workers’ compensation as it is in other areas of business. You need to know what you are paying this year versus last year, the frequency of claims, the total number of lost days and the total lost production. Effectively measuring the program can identify trends, focus prevention and help create accountability for low-performing areas.

DAVID WEIR is president of UPMC Work Partners in Pittsburgh. Reach him at (412) 454-8720 or weirdm@upmc.edu.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Targeting limited health dollars

Health risk assessments (HRAs) and screenings (measuring health risks associated with your company’s health care costs) are not only valuable for employers, but for employees as well.

“For employers, understanding health risk is vital to targeting their limited health care dollars to get the biggest health improvement impact possible,” says Pamela Peele, Ph.D., vice president of health economics for UPMC Health Plan.

Smart Business talked to Peele about the respective roles of employers and employees in health care expenditures.

What is the value of doing HRAs or biometric screenings?

The cost of bad health for employers is more than just paying for medical procedures — it extends to lost productivity and absenteeism. Further, a growing body of literature is showing a correlation between some health conditions, such as depression, and higher rates of job-related injuries.

An HRA gives employers the opportunity to view the distribution and severity of health risk factors among their employees. This provides an employer-specific measure of health risk, rather than an estimate.

For employees, the HRA is an opportunity to understand their health status and to compare their reported health status and health risk against an age/sex-matched comparison group (national benchmarks).

HRAs can also inform employees about how small changes to their current lifestyle can impact their potential for developing overt disease. Members can retake the HRA as often as they like and use it to track improvements.

Who sees the information and how is it used?

When HRAs are conducted through a trusted third party, such as UPMC Health Plan, they are completely separated and isolated from the employer. The employer never sees any individual information. We have numerous processes in place to ensure that private information stays private.

All members who fill out an HRA have the option of requesting that they not be contacted. But if members wish, their information can be reviewed by a health professional and they may be referred for consultation to a health coach and/or a health care manager.

Does this violate an employee's privacy?

No. Employee information is completely private. Employers have absolutely no access to any individual employee information. An HRA questionnaire is a safe place for employees to review their own health risks and learn what they can do to mitigate those risks.

How does all this matter to employees and their employers?

Understanding what health risks are present in their work force can help employers direct their limited health care dollars toward reducing those risks, with the objective of improving the quality of life for their employees — and increasing attendance and productivity.

HRAs are road maps for employers. For example, employers with a high percentage of employees who are smokers might want to help their employees quit the habit. How to approach that objective will depend on how ready their employees are to quit smoking.

For employees, HRAs are also road maps to better health. They provide information to help members take better care of themselves and to enjoy a higher level of health and a potentially more active lifestyle.

How accurate and realistic are assessments of risk conducted in the workplace?

The literature is robust with the correlation between certain biometric values (such as high blood pressure, high glucose and high LDL, and devastating health outcomes like kidney failure, blindness, stroke and heart attack). Workplace biometric screenings are the perfect opportunity for employees to easily get their own biometric values and have a discussion with a health coach on what these numbers mean, as well as what actions they might want to take. In our experience with work-place screenings, employees have given high marks to the experience.

What are the overall issues of HRAs in terms of HIPAA?

HRAs contain self-reported personal health information and are subject to the full coverage of HIPAA regulations protecting personal health information.

What type of corporate infrastructure is best utilized to accommodate the HRA process and to ensure fair execution?

Support and involvement of senior management in programs to increase the health and welfare of employees is important for engaging employees in the process. An HRA can serve as both the initial step for an employer toward this goal and as an ongoing part of a robust corporate culture of health.

PAMELA PEELE, Ph.D., is vice president, health economics for UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at peelepb2@upmc.edu or (412) 454-7952.

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Is it safe?

After crunching the numbers and analyzing the benefits and risks, more and more companies are deploying Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Now the difficult issues must be faced. Is VoIP the right solution? Is it reliable?

There are numerous and important strategic questions facing system migration.

Before business owners can answer yes decisively to the question, due diligence is required to analyze, test and evaluate what will work best within the company’s existing telecommunications infrastructure, according to John Curry, founder and president of Curry IP Solutions.

Smart Business spoke with Curry about VoIP deployment concerns and how businesses can minimize problems in transitioning from an analog to a VoIP telephone system.

What are some of the problems with converting to VoIP?

For businesses, the prospect of merging VoIP onto a network established for traditional analog communications can be challenging. Good quality conversations require low latency and jitter, low packet loss and sufficient bandwidth.

Allowing a deviation from those requirements can result in the quality of voice service not being acceptable to customers and other end-users.

Ensuring that the system is VoIP-ready is a sizable undertaking. Professional advice and guidance is highly recommended.

It is important to understand all of the implications and proactively confront the issues that are likely to emerge.

How can problems be overcome?

VoIP networks have been designed and built with data applications in mind. As companies evolve into increasingly mission-critical usage of data, the importance of VoIP as the foundation of the telecommunications infrastructure becomes clear. But business owners also need to know that it is possible to keep a traditional analog phone service and incorporate digital, or VoIP, over it.

It does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. The current analog phone system can be used with analog adapters. We have found that few businesses are comfortable with moving to VoIP with no questions asked. Some have already experienced issues with a voice service provider who did not provide a quality service. In addition, other individuals have come out of a negative residential use experience. It is understandable that there would then be resistance to starting an enterprise VoIP service for business.

Businesses can have the best of both worlds.

What types of connections are most efficient?

A very important consideration is the existing broadband connection. If the ‘pipe’ coming into the business is reliable and sized right, the transition to VoIP will be easier. If the business is currently experiencing Internet problems with its provider, I would not recommend deploying VoIP until those issues are successfully resolved.

T1 connections, for example, were expensive at one time. They have now come down in price, making them attractive for VoIP service. A T1 connection provides a guaranteed service level and it will remain up and running with consistently high bandwidth 99.99 percent of the time.

We also seek out the fiberoptic user, or businesses with fiberoptic service (FiOS) access. They are ideal candicates for VoIP. FiOS is being rapidly deployed, while existing copper for telecommunications and data usage are being left behind to degrade over time.

FiOS is competitively priced and can be cheaper than a T1. This type of connectivity is becoming more common and it is now widely available.

Some businesses also have an imbedded Ethernet service provider available to them in which you purchase bandwidth in megabytes. Ethernet specifically relates to connectivity and speed. If the Ethernet is currently in the building where the business is located, VoIP would be a cost-effective solution. If no one else in the building has fiberoptic, then it’s probably not.

Why, in the end, choose VoIP?

VoIP systems with digital voice communications provide inherent benefits to businesses. Voice messages can be stored, retrieved, forwarded and organized in the most efficient manner possible for optimum business efficiency. In addition, inbound calls to the VoIP system can ‘follow’ you anywhere and can be forwarded to any phone at any location. Remote offices can be set up as extensions from the main campus, making disaster recovery quick.

There are many telecommunication providers to choose from. Yours should work hard to stand out with an intensely dedicated approach to customer service and determining what will work best for the customer. It should analyze what the issues are and proactively resolve them.

JOHN CURRY is founder and president of Curry IP Solutions. He has been providing telecommunications expertise to businesses and individuals for more than 30 years. Reach him at (412) 307-3600, ext. 9007 or john@curryip.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Electronic health records

In July, 2007, UPMC Health Plan introduced “MyHealth Record,” a new online personal health record that provides members with access to a convenient and secure tool for improved health management. Smart Business spoke with Michael Taylor, executive director, Marketing and Communications, about personal electronic health records and the important employer issues and concerns regarding its administration and use.

Why is it important to encourage the use of an electronic personal health record?

What many insurers and leaders of health care systems are discovering is that the best way to care for members and patients is to help them to care for themselves. An electronic personal health record empowers users by offering a ‘hands on’ approach to managing health information in a secure and easily accessible manner. Effective use of the tool closes gaps in care and promotes better health. If used in concert with providers, an electronic personal health record can reduce or eliminate duplicate procedures or processes.

What are the essential parts of an effective electronic personal health record?

To be effective and for it to gain acceptance with the public, an electronic personal health record must be both secure and easily accessible. Member health confidentiality must be a priority. The same level of security that is standard in the banking and finance industries should be in place for electronic personal health records.

How can members become engaged in the concept of electronic personal health records?

Members are given a comprehensive and educational way to manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, and even track progress to maintain a healthy lifestyle through weight management or tobacco cessation tips. This tool also gives members a chance to take an active role in their health care, while also improving communication with their primary care physician and specialists. It also enables them to track such things as appointments, vaccinations and progress toward their individual health-related goals, while keeping information organized and current. A personal health record is easily accessible from any online connection at all times.

How does an electronic personal health record differ from a record a member might keep on his or her own?

An electronic personal health record not only stores personal health information, it can also provide the chance for members to add detailed personal information, such as family health history, that can help a doctor make a more informed diagnosis. In addition, complete histories can help eliminate repeat medical tests and guard against adverse drug interactions.

A personal health record also provides a chance to view past claims data and review lab screening results or diagnostic tests.

Why should employers be enthusiastic about increased use of electronic personal health records?

A mechanism that helps consumers to get more involved and knowledgeable about their own health can not only bring down overall health costs, but improve the delivery of health care, which would benefit employers, providers, health systems and insurers alike. Whether you are managing a chronic condition or trying to maintain good health, an electronic personal health record can help. It can remind you about important appointments and screenings. It can print information that you can share with your physician. These are features that will encourage use.

What can we expect to happen as a result of more widespread use of the electronic personal health record?

An electronic personal health record is not a panacea for modern medicine; it is just one tool. However, it is a tool that generates a lot of positive publicity because it has the potential to improve the quality of care as well as the personal experience of patients. At present, members have limited access to their own health records. With this system they can more control. By empowering consumers in this manner, there will be substantial changes, and, most of them will be for the better.

What will be the ultimate cost benefit to the consumer?

The cost benefit to the consumer is inestimable. If, as expected, widespread use of personal health records decreases medical errors and reduces duplication in tests and procedures, it will reduce the cost of health care, which will directly benefit all consumers. In the United States, the cost of medical errors is estimated at about 20 percent of the health budget. That, of course, does not measure the human cost of such errors. The gains we see in efficiency through increased use of this tool should more than offset other costs related to it.

Recent provider participation feedback around the United States indicates that the standards for sharing information and the interoperability of systems are essential elements of success. What’s your view on this?

Yes, it appears that interoperability of systems will be essential for widespread use of the personal health record. I believe that many of the problems will be overcome as personal health records become more commonplace and the need for interoper-ability will become more obvious.

MICHAEL TAYLOR is executive director of Marketing and Communications at UPMC Health Plan. Reach him at (412) 454-7534 or taylorm2@upmc.edu.

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Managing health care costs

Employers are confronted with new situations that require evolutionary thinking about new and more effective approaches to health care cost containment.

“Our belief has always been that it is the role of the health plan to help coordinate care between the employee, the provider and the pharmacy,” says Anthony Benevento, vice president of sales and marketing for UPMC Health Plan. “By doing that, you have the best chance to deliver the right care at the right time, and in the most cost-effective manner. Companies are challenged to find health plans that can best do that.”

Smart Business spoke with Benevento about corporate strategies that address health care cost containment.

What cost-containment strategies should employers investigate?

Organizations should invest in their employees by promoting health and wellness. It will not only affect how much you pay for health insurance, but it will impact your whole business. Studies have shown that employees who are overweight and smoke are twice as likely to miss work for health-related reasons, are more susceptible to being hurt on the job and are more likely to have low presenteeism. In addition, these employees are more susceptible to developing chronic conditions that will mean higher health care costs.

By creating a work environment that helps employees modify their behaviors, it not only benefits the employer, but it helps the employees throughout their life.

What tactics can engage employees and lower costs at the same time?

This requires a comprehensive strategy that combines financial incentives and provides the employee with tools, information and incentives to take an active role in changing lifestyle behaviors. Employers often make changes to benefit levels by shifting more costs to the employees. However, by doing so they are not addressing the underlying cost drivers.

What tactics work best for large companies and which work best for small companies?

Regardless of the organization’s size, senior management must take an active lead role in promoting a culture of improved health and productivity. When this is driven at the highest levels of the organization, the success rate is dramatically improved.

The size of the organization usually dictates the resources available for a health and wellness strategy. However, regardless of size, an organization must choose a health plan partner that possesses the expertise and methods that have proven to be successful.

What should employers look for in a tiered pharmacy program?

Employers should look for a pharmacy program that is structured to obtain the lowest net cost while achieving the highest quality of options. This includes the use of generics and mail order, and using proper therapeutic substitutes that produce the same results clinically and the best results financially.

Would hiring pharmacists to educate patients about how to reduce drug bills and avoid dangerous drug interactions help contain costs?

An employer should partner with a health plan that possesses this expertise. The pharmacy arena is very complex and requires constant strategic modifications to ensure the best possible results. In addition, it is critical for care management programs to be in concert with the pharmacy programs.

Would implementing disease management in high-risk pools be helpful?

Absolutely. Comprehensive disease management programs have a significant impact on people with high-risk conditions. Since many people have more than one chronic condition, it is important to work with a health plan that takes a holistic approach. Rather than focus on a specific disease, focus on the member and all of his or her physical — and, in some cases, mental — conditions.

In addition, it is just as important to focus on people who have the potential to be high-risk in the future. Care management programs often make the mistake of only focusing on members that are considered high-risk today.

ANTHONY BENEVENTO is vice president of sales and marketing for UPMC Health Plan. Reach him at beneventoa@upmc.edu or (412) 454-7826.