Vocollect's device has health-care workers talking

Businesses that launched new products in late 2007 could start their own survivor's club today, with monthly meetings convened around a mid-sized dining table.

In that elite club, one seat should be reserved for Vocollect Healthcare Systems in Wilkins, which Â-- counter to the economic times -- saw its sales more than triple last year.

The company's product is a voice-assisted care device that, to an outsider, looks a lot like the headsets worn by the counter help at fast-food restaurants.

But Vocollect's device, called AccuNurse, is more -- a voice-activated portable system that provides nursing home aides with information on their residents as they work while also capturing data to ensure the nursing home gets proper reimbursement.

When it debuted, AccuNurse was sold in two states. Now it is available in 23.

"There's enormous opportunity for us, so we have pretty high expectations for this company," said James Quasey, president of the firm.

He makes the case that AccuNurse has a number of benefits: It helps ensure nursing home residents get proper care at the proper time; it streamlines the work day for aides, who no longer have to keep handwritten records or sit through shift-change meetings; and it makes sure the nursing home captures the full reimbursement.

"It is a system that pays for itself within months," Mr. Quasey said.

In 2005, Roger Byford, chairman and CEO of Vocollect Healthcare's parent company, visited the small Virginia company that developed the system. "It was very clear to me that it was a great application for the technology," he said.

So he bought AccuNurse and brought it back to Pittsburgh, where Vocollect technicians spent 18 months building a second generation model that is more powerful, smaller, more ergonomically designed and less expensive.

They put special emphasis on top-drawer voice recognition software, knowing that garbled messages lead to intolerable delays and mistakes. And they made sure potential customers would see the financial benefit.

Among its local customers are UPMC's skilled nursing facilities, which, in an article in Nursing Homes magazine last year, reported increased reimbursement due to improved documentation and dramatic declines in staff turnover. Within three months, the system had paid for itself, according to the article.

Last month, St. John Specialty Care Center in Mars took some of its units fully online. Executive Director Tom Prickett said, "We're very pleased with it." Judy Hon, assistant director of nursing, said staff members feel empowered, knowing when they walk into a resident's room they actually have a handle on everything that resident needs.

Because workers can page each other through the headset, rather than an intercom, noise levels in the facility have gone down, too.

Vocollect officials keep pricing and revenue figures private, but they are clearly optimistic about the company's future. While potential 10 percent to 20 percent annual growth would make most companies swoon, "that would be short of our expectation, that's for sure," Mr. Quasey said.

With 45 employees, Vocollect Healthcare is only one-tenth the size of its parent, Vocollect Inc., which sells voice-activation systems for use in warehouse distribution. With many of its customers in the retail sector, the economic downturn has hit Vocollect Inc., forcing the company to lay off 65 workers in November.

"We expect both businesses to grow," said Mr. Byford, but in five years he hopes the parent is only two to three times bigger than Vocollect Healthcare, a wholly-owned subsidiary.

There are 17,000 nursing homes in the United States, he noted. The company also is already exploring the possibilities of adapting the application to hospital settings.

"It's not just that we're growing in a slow economy," Mr. Quasey said. "It's that we're helping people."

Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.
First published on March 17, 2009 at 12:00 am




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