Oct 31 2006

Image Is Everything

State agencies utilize videoconferencing to enhance effectiveness, boost productivity and cut costs.

Samuel Greengard

Dr. Lester Wright knows firsthand that overseeing a state prison medical system is a complicated endeavor. Shuttling inmates to hearings and medical appointments burns enormous amounts of financial resources and staff time. And every trip outside the prison makes security more difficult. In New York State, with its 64,000 inmates and more than 110,000 medical consultations each year, that resource drain made it essential to streamline processes and improve service levels.

For Wright, deputy commissioner and chief medical officer at the New York State Department of Correctional Services in Albany, it’s all about keeping an eye on the big picture. In 1995, the agency added videoconferencing to its information technology toolkit, and it is now an integral—and growing—part of the agency’s organizational structure. Each year, more than 5,000 medical consultations take place in front of video cameras at the prison, instead of at the end of a costly trip.

“This is a large state, and it can take three or four hours to transport an inmate to a clinic or have a parole officer drive to a hearing,” Wright points out. “This system has changed the way we operate.”

Wright estimates that his department saves more than $1 million annually with its videoconferencing system, which operates over six bonded phone lines. Because a videoconference consultation is easier to arrange than an in-person visit, the system also helps the department provide inmates with better and more timely health care, training and education.

Videoconferencing also plays a role in legal hearings. More than 250 legal hearings, including some by courts in other states, took place in 2004 via the department’s videoconferencing system. “It’s easy to use, and it’s remarkably effective,” Wright says. “It’s difficult to imagine how we did business before we began using it.”

These days, videoconferencing offers agencies the potential to streamline interviews for job candidates and foster care applicants, as well as facilitating appearances for family services and court hearings. The technology also provides telemedicine services to residents in rural areas and to prison inmates. In addition, reduced driving expenses and greater convenience have turned a growing number of agencies into videoconferencing fans.

Picture Perfect

When AT&T introduced its futuristic Picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair, it instantly captured the public’s imagination. But the concept of seeing friends or family while speaking with them on the phone was more attractive than the reality, and most consumers spurned videoconferencing systems.

In the world of business and government, the story is different. Since the 1990s, when several manufacturers began offering high-end videoconferencing systems for organizational use, the concept has steadily gained followers, and performance has improved greatly. “Videoconferencing is coming of age—particularly systems that use IP [Internet Protocol]-based technology,” says Aaron Vance, a senior analyst at Synergy Research Group in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Today, users such as the New York State Department of Correctional Services deploy videoconferencing to boost their communication capabilities and cut costs.

When an inmate has a health emergency, the agency’s videoconferencing system lets a doctor visually examine the person and determine whether emergency treatment is required and what course of action to take. The capability has reduced live visits by nearly 30 percent, says the agency’s Wright.

In situations in which an inmate is sent to an emergency department near the prison, the examining physician’s facility can alert officials there before the inmate arrives and inform emergency center staff about the nature of the required treatment. “It is important to get inmates in and out of an emergency center in an efficient and timely fashion,” Wright says.

The agency has videoconferencing set up in 55 of its 70 correctional facilities and is in the process of bringing all correctional facilities online. In addition to providing medical treatment and streamlining hearings and depositions, it also employs the system to provide training and education. For example, medical staff and other corrections employees can sit in on high-level seminars and sessions without driving or flying to a remote location.

“Resistance to videoconferencing instead of face-to-face meetings has eroded as people have used the system,” Wright says. “They are learning that it saves a lot of wear and tear.”

Going Digital

Although the New York State Department of Corrections uses standard copper phone lines to transmit images, other corrections departments have turned to the Internet or Internet Protocol (IP) networks. Video telephony, already used by some organizations, enables videoconferencing over a digital network, which produces higher quality pictures and fewer problems with jumpy images and dropped frames. It also is less costly, and the network can carry other data, including voice calls.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) uses a high-speed IP-based videoconferencing system to improve security, provide medical and mental health services, increase productivity and cut travel costs. The system, which was installed three years ago, can handle conferences at multiple sites.

“Videoconferencing allows the CDOC to provide a wide variety of services to a large audience—both staff and inmates—without compromising security and quality,” says Oscar Wilde, communications manager for business technologies at the agency. “At the same time, it maximizes tax dollars. With recent downsizing, staff must do more with fewer resources, and videoconferencing allows us to accomplish this and support our customers.”

Each month, CDOC averages 47 videoconferences of psychiatric and medical clinics, training sessions, case management and physical plant meetings, as well as staff meetings and parole board, judicial, and Immigration and Naturalization Service hearings.

To schedule a videoconference over these dedicated units, employees log onto the CDOC intranet and place a formal request for a conference. They list the sites that will participate in the sessions and note the date, time and duration. The department’s business technologies staff then schedules the sessions, determines the type of connection the employees will use (IP or dial-up) and posts the call on a videoconferencing calendar that appears on the intranet.

The system slashed travel and transportation costs and reduced risks to guards and other personnel, especially while transporting high-risk inmates. CDOC also can conduct medical and psychological clinics without reducing onsite staff available for emergencies.

State employees spend more time on productive work and less on the road. In coming months, CDOC will consider expanding the use of videoconferencing and deploying desktop videoconferencing.

Focus on Efficiency

Although corrections departments are leading users of videoconferencing, state and local governments also use it. At Ohio’s Clark County Department of Job and Family Services, IP-based cameras will soon let job searchers from five counties conduct interviews from satellite offices. In many instances, this will eliminate 40- to 60-mile round-trip drives for candidates and employers.

According to Dan Howard, a management information systems specialist for Clark County, the system also will let the counties combine their employment resources and better match job seekers to positions. Users log onto the system via a Web page, and a high-quality videoconference runs over a T1 line. Clark County is considering adding document-sharing to let applicants read documents and fill out forms online.

The system will cost less than $1,000 per county and will likely achieve its return on investment in a few months, Howard says. “It’s an enormous money and time saver,” he says. “This continues the concept of providing a one-stop experience for citizens, offering a higher level of customer service and operating in the most cost-effective manner possible.”

During the next few years, state and local agencies are increasingly likely to turn to videoconferencing systems, ushering in a new era of high-tech interviewing. Although this technology will never eliminate the need for face-to-face meetings, it can reduce the need to travel to out-of-town sites.

“The cost of videoconferencing systems is dropping, and the quality and ease of use are improving markedly,” says Vance of the Synergy Research Group. “Government is one place where the technology makes a lot of sense.”

IP Communications Calling

Videoconferencing can run over dedicated phone lines and satellite links, but the need for a high level of availability, reliability and security has led many government agencies to migrate to closed Internet Protocol-based networks. This approach provides a platform for high-quality videoconferencing and opens the door to using other tools, including Voice over IP, unified messaging, document sharing, and IP video broadcasting and multicasting.

“The idea of converging electronic communications channels onto a single platform is an attractive concept,” says Aaron Vance, a senior analyst at Synergy Research Group, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market research and consulting firm. By combining voice, data and video over the same digital network, it’s possible to use newer, more sophisticated applications, while cutting costs and slashing administrative overhead.

Unlike earlier videoconferencing products that use Integrated Service Digital Network and are compatible only with certain other devices, today’s IP tools are relatively simple to install and operate. Most are based on the H.323 International Telecommunications Union standard for real-time multimedia communications and conferencing over packet-based IP networks. This makes it possible to conduct videoconferencing, handle integrated application sharing and cooperative whiteboarding, and use file transfer tools.

Videoconferencing Services

Annual service value by region in $U.S. millions

Source: In-Stat/MDR