Creativity In A Crisis

A SARS-related lockdown forces I.T. team members at an Ontario geriatrics center to get closer to patients than their jobs usually require

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, Senior Writer, InformationWeek

March 5, 2003

3 Min Read

I.T. staffers at Baycrest Centre in Toronto usually don't even talk to the patients at the 800-bed geriatrics hospital and nursing home.

A lockdown of health facilities this month as a precaution against severe acute respiratory syndrome changed that and tested this small IT staff's preparation for a crisis. In addition to customizing programs to monitor and assign staff more closely, IT workers ended up feeding patients and thinking of ways to keep families in touch with their elderly kin.

There haven't been any SARS cases at Baycrest, but for 10 days in March and early April, all health-care facilities in Ontario went into "code orange." That meant the only people permitted to come and go at Baycrest were full-time staff, including the 20-person IT department. But Baycrest depends on part-timers and volunteers, including as many as 30 IT contractors, plus interns and other volunteers who work for free to gain IT experience. Because of an industrywide nursing shortage, geriatric facilities depend on visiting family members, volunteers, and companions hired by some patients' families to help entertain and feed patients.

For 10 days, the SARS crisis forced all health-care facilities in Ontario into "code orange" mode. The only people allowed to come and go were full-time staff.

Baycrest's team developed a SQL database program to match the right people with the right patients at the right time. IT staff helped patients who didn't need as much care. "I'd say IT people each spent about three hours every day feeding patients," IT director Stephen Tucker says.

The lockdown taught the IT department that there are some elements of this type of crisis they weren't prepared to deal with. The staff tripled the remote-access server capabilities to support up to 120 home users, as managers had many administrators work from home. Web-site traffic also increased 30% from the usual 10,000 hits a day as family members checked the site for information. The staff bumped up the capacity of existing servers by removing less-critical apps. They also used a 35-day trial license of Citrix Systems Inc. server-management tools.

Baycrest's IT staff also used software--first in a Microsoft Access program, then migrated to SQL--to organize forms all health-care workers filled out about the other facilities they visited. The aim was to track whether a worker was exposed to a "hot spot," a facility with reported or suspected SARS cases.

It was several days into the lockdown before the IT staff could start working on other initiatives, such as easing the separation of patients from family. "Every morning when I came to work, there was an elderly man outside the building waving to his wife, a patient, upstairs," Tucker says. The lockdown ended before his team could use the videoconferencing, E-mail, and other options it set up, but they're ready for the next emergency.

Besides preparing Baycrest's IT team for the next crisis, the experience had another, possibly lasting benefit. Says Web designer Jonil Baranda, "The tech people have a much better understanding about health care, the patients, and staff."

About the Author(s)

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Senior Writer, InformationWeek

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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