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BlueCross charts course with three clouds to streamline work and maximise connections

One of the big wins for Victoria-based aged care provider BlueCross during the pandemic lockdowns, was its ability to keep residents and families connected.

Mobile devices and Microsoft Teams meant residents were literally able to hold their family in their hands and talk to them.

It’s something that Paul Thurston General Manager of ITC is rightly proud of. But there was quite a digital journey he charted to get to that point.

For almost 30 years BlueCross has been providing a range of aged care services across metropolitan and regional Victoria. It operates 32 aged care residences supporting more than 2,600 people, as well as providing services to 1,000+ people in their own homes – backed by a dedicated team of more than 4,000 dedicated employees and volunteers.

The organisation has grown both organically and by acquisition, and along the way collected an array of different technology systems.

When Paul Thurston joined BlueCross in early 2020, it was with a mandate to streamline operations, modernise and secure the technology landscape, and implement systems that would allow BlueCross to optimise the care experience for its clients and their families, and also support employees as they go about their important work.

He has taken a three clouds approach – deploying Azure, Microsoft 365 – and, critically, Microsoft Teams – as well as Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform.

BlueCross – which is now 100 per cent cloud based – moved its entire environment into Azure over seven months with the support of Precision IT. Some 20-25 applications were transferred and a number of legacy systems retired.

Headshot of Paul Thurston
Paul Thurston, General Manager of ITC, BlueCross Aged Care

While he’s fast-moving Thurston is also deeply pragmatic – understanding that for an organisation like BlueCross, people not systems are the priority. He knows though that if those people had better access to data and technology their lives could be enriched.

It required some savvy workarounds. For example, in the past not all nurses and care providers had direct access to BlueCross technology. If they wanted access to a system they might have borrowed someone else’s computer and log on to quickly check on something.

BlueCross didn’t want to quadruple its licensing costs to provide access to everyone – these ad hoc computer users didn’t need access to a full suite of software – but it did want to make things simpler for them. Working with Microsoft, BlueCross has formed a solution that will allow frontline workers to access systems while keeping costs well within the IT budget. This solution is planned to be deployed very early in 2022.

Thurston’s pragmatism extends to the way that BlueCross has deployed and is using Dynamics 365. It has started off using the customer relationship capabilities of the platform.

That’s important because it shapes the very first interaction between a prospective resident or their family and BlueCross.

But as Thurston notes; “We’re probably tapping into maybe about 15 per cent of what we could be tapping into with Dynamics 365. We’re very respectful of the ‘power of three’,” he adds, referring to the benefits that come from the integrated flow of data and processes that derives when an organisation leverages Microsoft’s three clouds – Azure, Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365.

At present Dynamics 365 CRM underpins the interaction between BlueCross and clients offering an easy-to-read format, and data capture. Supported by Microsoft partner Empired, BlueCross has used Power Flow, along with SQL and Power Apps to integrate Dynamics 365 with its finance system to ensure that people are provided with accurate billing information.

“We need to make sure that from a billing perspective we’re billing at the right time at the right rates. Aged care funding is not exactly a simple, straightforward process – there’s a lot of variables”, he says. By automating the process;

We found that we’ve improved efficiencies and also improved the client experience by making sure we reduce any manual errors that can be introduced in that process, and just making the whole process flow a little bit faster.

BlueCross is now supporting its client services team to use the growing data collection to get a better understanding of issues such as room ratios that relate the number of respite beds compared to permanent beds, – a ratio that’s important when configuring sites – as well as length of stays which aids the planning process and streamlines management of facilities.

Having access to improved quality and centralised data is a huge bonus for BlueCross – as is access to Power Platform tools such as Power Flow, Power BI for analysis, and Power App for low-to-no code rapid development.

Thurston acknowledges that there was some scepticism in the IT team about the capability of Power App compared to more traditional development routes – but the platform earned its stripes when BlueCross needed to rapidly develop a COVID vaccination platform.

Rapid response

Like many organisations, and especially aged care providers, BlueCross needed a way to track staff vaccination. Resident and client vaccination data was captured in the organisation’s clinical management system – but long before it became mandatory, BlueCross wanted a way to collect data about which staff had been vaccinated, and which staff planned to get an injection.

Aged care providers interacting with elderly patients on a group activity
BlueCross employees were able to connect with other employees, volunteers residents and families through the pandemic – powered through technology (Source: BlueCross)

“I set the team to it – really it was two people. They started to look into it and they built the database. They were able to build security around it as well so that the residence managers and the admin coordinators at individual sites would be able to log in and only see and edit information for their specific staff at their site,” says Thurston.

At the back end, the data from the app was collated providing a holistic view across the whole of BlueCross for the People and Culture team.

It took just two weeks to build and implement, says Thurston. “Of course, getting the right buy-in from the rest of the organisation took some time but now people across the business are seeing the benefits and power of using our core Microsoft technology to replace traditional ways of working,” he says.

Having access to modern Microsoft platforms also helped expedite other initiatives – for example Teams was used to connect employees, volunteers, residents and families through the pandemic. Thurston had been developing a change management program to support a gradual rollout of Teams at BlueCross, initially to support virtual meetings and training – but that plan was ditched when it became clear just how much and how fast the pandemic was going to impact aged care.

“My change management program was condensed into four hours. It was a Friday morning and it was started with an email,” says Thurston. He then brought in groups of people from different business units to give them the low-down of how Teams worked and how they could use it with one another and also to keep residents connected to family members no longer allowed to visit the locked down aged care residences.

“Our staff were amazing with the work that they did with all of our residents. Some of these residents were used to seeing their family members once a day, sometimes more than once a day,” says Thurston.

Using mobile tablets, BlueCross staff were able to reconnect residents to family and friends. Teams was found to be the simplest conduit for communications. “It was very easy for a person who didn’t already use Teams on their home, laptop or even their tablet. It was downloadable. Microsoft did an amazing amazing thing in my book and they made it free so anybody could use it. Of course, we were also able to seamlessly integrate into other online communication platforms where it was needed for specific families.

It enabled that communication and it’s seamless. Click a button. You’re in a meeting and our residents in so many cases were overjoyed at this. The fact that they’re actually holding their family in their hand and being able to speak to them.

Innovation appetite

BlueCross’ migration to the cloud meant that as admin staff started to work remotely, they had access to the systems they needed to do their work – but also through Teams were able still to connect and communicate with the essential care providers working with residents. The company’s conference rooms have also been upgraded with Teams Calling capability.

Teams has also underpinned a range of virtual experiences BlueCross care workers arranged for residents. By hooking their device to a TV in the common-room care workers have been able to have comedians, musicians, magicians perform for residents even though they can’t physically visit the premises.

It’s a signal of the growing confidence in technology among staff, says Thurston.  “One of the biggest flow on benefits of this entire situation is that technology is now more widely accepted in our industry than it may have been 18 months, 24 months ago.”

The whole organisation is also more aware of the impact data and digital technology can have.

Care workers engaging residents with a group technology
Microsoft Teams has underpinned a range of virtual experiences BlueCross care workers arranged for residents (Source: BlueCross)

BlueCross is currently constructing a data lake which will provide a secure home for a range of information that can then be analysed to support decision making across the group. Importantly it will also help the organisation streamline the way it meets a raft of regulatory and reporting requirements.

It’s also continuing to ramp up its systems security. The move to Microsoft’s three clouds automatically lifted BlueCross’s security posture, and revealed to Thurston the threat landscape that the organisation faced.

The integration of native Microsoft multi factor authentication into the environment has been key in providing further security across the environment – and despite his initial concerns that it might be challenging for some staff – he says the newly acquired technology comfort among employees means that the deployment is going quite smoothly.

Less than two years after BlueCross embarked on its digital transformation, the organisation has embraced the cloud – in fact, three of them – warmed to new ways of working and communicating, and developed a clear appetite for innovation that still centres around the wellbeing of all its people.