How would you provide ongoing technical support to your internal and external customers if your facility were placed under quarantine? That’s the question that had to be answered recently by Stephen Tucker, director of information technology at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto.

Tucker received just five hours’ notice before management called a “code orange” and placed the facility into protective lockdown. To guard against exposure to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), access to the facility was severely restricted for more than a week.

I spoke to Tucker about how he and his technical support staff responded to the lockdown, but we didn’t talk only about innovative uses of technology in a crisis. We also talked about how tech support managers need to be passionate about aligning IT strategy with the objectives of the business. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

The nature of the lockdown
TechRepublic: While the facility was locked down, you said access to the hospital was restricted at the front door to “essential personnel.” Was anyone on the IT staff considered nonessential during this time?

Tucker: No. In fact, all the people in the public relations, information technology, and print shop departments were considered essential personnel.

TechRepublic: How did you prioritize your tech support activities?

Tucker: I gave my operations manager the mandate to coordinate the help desk team. We began the process like a disaster recovery procedure. In fact we learned a lot [during the lockdown] that inspired us to update our disaster recovery processes.

TechRepublic: I’d love to hear about the changes you made to your plan. What are your tier-one applications?

Tucker: What made the lockdown different from a typical disaster is that this wasn’t an IT-focused crisis. IT was trying to help overcome the problems caused by the crisis. Besides continuing support of our patients, communications was our number-one priority. We wanted to maintain communications between patients and their families, as well as between the hospital and the rest of the world. E-mail was the number-two priority.

TechRepublic: E-mail? A lot of companies relegate restoration of e-mail to a lower priority during disaster recovery.

Tucker: I know, and we’ve reevaluated that because e-mail is so important for staff scheduling. People rely on it to know where they’re supposed to be.

Support for patients and families
TechRepublic: According to the press release, one of the facility’s nurses set up a database to keep track of everyone who visited the facility, as well as the locations those people visited near the hospital. If there’s a SARS breakout at one of those nearby locations, the data will be used to identify people who may need to be quarantined. Did your tech support team participate in that project?

Tucker: The nurse had designed an Access database on his own. As soon as we heard about it, we said, “Can we help you?” It was being used by about 50 ward clerks. So we set up the database in SQL and wrote a Visual Basic front end for better security.

TechRepublic: Your team provided additional pagers and telephones to help staff and families keep in touch during the lockdown, right?

Tucker: Right. I was determined to use technology as much as possible to help keep families in touch with their patients. The facility’s goal is to provide the best possible patient care. I want our IT solutions to be aligned as much as possible with that goal.

TechRepublic: Tell me why you’re so passionate about your work.

Tucker: The lockdown basically meant we screened everyone at the door. There was a cop at the door and tape. Lots of barriers. It was hard for patients to stay connected with their families. On the Tuesday after lockdown, I met a woman outside the facility who was crying, upset because she couldn’t get in to see her husband. She told me she felt like she was letting her husband down. She was heartbroken. All her husband could do was wave to his wife from the third floor.

TechRepublic: That’s when you got the idea to use cameras to connect patients and their families?

Tucker: Right. I identified a number of items we could implement quickly and provide value to patients. We decided to add wireless cameras to the carts our physicians were already using for order entry.

TechRepublic: So visitors will be able to log on to a computer in the waiting room and chat with their family members via a Web cam?

Tucker: That’s right. When the visitor logs on, the cart will move to the appropriate room on the hospital floor. And because it’s difficult for some family members to make the trip to the hospital, we’re looking into setting up a Web site that will allow family members to log on and check on a patient’s status from anywhere they can access the Internet.

Tech support and more
TechRepublic: What was the secret to your team’s success during the lockdown?

Tucker: I have a great team. I try to develop a collaborative team versus a dictated team. I try to create a feeling of family.

TechRepublic: How do you accomplish that?

Tucker: For example, I gave the camera project to the staff so they can play with the technology they’re using and provide value to our patients. We also have a feed-a-patient program, and most of our tech support staff participates in that.

TechRepublic: Are you saying your IT staff helps feed patients in the hospital?

Tucker: That’s right. It is optional, and not required, of course. Different patients require varying levels of help, so there are some patients that require skilled assistance that we can’t help. But it’s very satisfying to [the tech support team members] to participate in patient care. It reminds them that the hospital’s mission is providing patient care. It makes them feel like part of the family.

About Stephen Tucker
Before he joined Baycrest Centre, Tucker worked for six years managing and implementing information systems at Federal Express Canada, where he won nine awards for excellent service and 32 letters of appreciation. In 2002, Tucker was named by Computing Canada magazine as Canada’s first IT Executive of the Year.

Are you ready to provide support in any situation?

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