Innovative communication technologies allow the public to live and work faster than ever before. Yet the more they live in an information-driven economy, the more they expect public services to be more responsive and effective, too. As one ambulance service recently discovered, cloud computing holds the key by making it easy, safe and cost-effective for NHS organisations to deliver technology-enabled services. Paul Curran reports. 

With some 4000 employees, 58 ambulance stations and 864 vehicles to provide emergency medical care for a population of 5.3 million across 5,000 square miles, West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) NHS Trust has been recognised as ‘Ambulance Service of the Year’ no fewer than four times since its formation in 2006. Indeed, during 2010-11, it was the only trust to achieve all four national performance standards. 

However, a lack of standardisation across multiple IT systems following the amalgamation of several services was making it difficult for staff to communicate and collaborate effectively. For example, WMAS was running three instances of Exchange, none of which was large enough to accommodate the needs of the whole organisation, according to head of IM&T, Phil Collins. 

“The absence of a common email platform meant our employees lacked a shared address book with which to locate one another,” he says. “We considered our options and recognised that we required collaboration tools, rather than just a replacement email system. 

“We needed to consolidate our systems and get everybody onto a uniform platform as quickly and easily as possible,” he says. “Whilst we knew that moving to the cloud would help us overcome our problems, we also needed to maintain the highest level of security around our patient data.” 

Consolidation and savings

Collins says the answer came in the form of Microsoft partner IMGROUP, who could deliver WMAS’ requirement for security, flexibility and completeness by combining cloud services with on-premise applications. “By moving us to Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud service and SharePoint 2010 collaboration platform, they enabled us to simplify, consolidate and manage our communications at a stroke.” 

With over five million licenced users, Office 365 combines secure cloud versions of Microsoft’s familiar communications and collaboration products:

  • Office Professional Plus and Office Web Apps for productivity across PC, phone and browser,
  • SharePoint for data management,
  • Exchange for email and Lync for unified communications

It cuts the cost and resource needed to maintain servers and software in-house, whilst giving WMAS employees the same rich experience online they’ve come to expect from their desktop Office programs. 

Office 365 works seamlessly with the programs WMAS staff already use. In one simple service, they now have reliable, use-anywhere access to ambulance service tools like the intranet, email, online meetings and calendars. Additionally, they also benefit from the full suite of collaboration tools like instant messaging, voice/video/web conferencing and document management and sharing - all via most web enabled devices and using any popular browser. 

WMAS staff can now collaborate quickly and securely with both colleagues and other emergency services, for example:

  • Directly from a Word document, see if a colleague is available to discuss it.
  • escalate a PC-to-PC voice call up to an interactive online meeting
  • and voicemails are delivered right to the Outlook inbox

“With staff spread across the West Midlands, we now have a platform that will potentially save us time and money and enable better team working,” says Collins. “For instance, Lync’s videoconferencing and ‘presence’ features mean that staff will potentially travel less and therefore use their time more efficiently. Not least, Office 365 gives us built-in scalability and disaster recovery to consolidate and manage our growing volume of data - all for a predictable price.” 

G-Cloud trailblazers

With all these benefits, healthcare organisations should be queuing up to deploy Cloud services. The challenge thus far has been one of trust: with data protection issues never far from the headlines, it’s no surprise that many Trusts are jittery about externalising data. But WMAS is the first ambulance service to negotiate a contract under the G-Cloud Framework, part of the Government Procurement Services’ commitment to see public cloud services account for 50% of new public ICT spending by 2015. 

By creating a marketplace of cloud services called CloudStore, IMGROUP’s head of Office 365 Sales, Marcel Bonfrer, says Whitehall has made it easier for suppliers and NHS purchasing departments to work together. “It means they can now order ICT products and services direct from accredited suppliers with confidence; without having to go through a long-winded tender process,’” he says. Under the G-Cloud regime, suppliers are pre-vetted into a Framework Agreement which features mandatory assurance checks on a wide range of technical and fiscal criteria. 

Microsoft and several of its UK partners, including IMGROUP, were among the first to qualify as members of the G-Cloud Supplier Community, providing key online services including Office 365, CRM Online, Windows Azure and Microsoft Consulting Services. 

Bonfrer says that, far from representing a data risk, Office 365 mitigates risk to patient-sensitive data by enabling WMAS to migrate its Office, email and SharePoint content to the Cloud: “Storing data in a Microsoft datacentre is infinitely safer than on an in-house server. Office 365 comes with a 99.9% uptime SLA financially backed by Microsoft. It incorporates multiple layers of security and data is backed-up and rigorously screened 24/7 by highly trained staff, so how can it fail to be more secure than on a bunch of servers in a basement? You’re also freed from the costly burden of deploying and managing antivirus, anti-spam and backup solutions in-house, plus you get all the latest updates without having to buy or install new software.” 

Bonfrer says that since Office 365 interoperates 100% with its on-premise equivalents, organisations can in any case embrace the “best of both” to fit their circumstances at any given time. “Distinct from many other vendors’ offerings, Microsoft cloud solutions give you the flexibility to temporarily or permanently maintain a hybrid environment so you can move to the cloud gradually or maintain some users on-premises indefinitely. 

"Our hybrid approach means we can help healthcare organisations maximise the benefit from the cloud in a risk-free manner. Many are struggling with the alchemy of how to do more with less and see their IT budgets eaten up with maintaining existing systems. Cloud computing is an opportunity to redress these numbers, additionally allowing these organisations to innovate and drive change.” 

A platform for the future

“Our appointment to the G-Cloud Supplier Community will allow NHS organisations like WMAS to benefit from Microsoft’s long-term investment in cloud technology,” says Mark Smith, Director of Healthcare & Life Sciences, Microsoft. “We’re delighted to see partners like IMGROUP successfully bidding to be part of the Framework and building cloud solutions for the health sector based on our technologies. 

"Office 365 and other Microsoft online services will help the NHS leverage the power of the cloud more easily to streamline business processes whilst delivering scalable, high performance solutions and providing a platform for the future. We believe these technologies will effectively support the Government’s objective to deliver 50% of its new ICT services from the cloud by 2015 and to continue to drive overall costs down at the same time.”