Cincinnati Children’s makes tough times easier with family-friendly mobile app
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is well known for the excellence of its care and its commitment to the well-being of the families it serves. To reduce strain for parents and make their lives easier, the hospital created the Caren mobile app using Microsoft Azure and Azure services. Parents turn to Caren for help navigating the hospital, to get answers to their questions, and to help them entertain their children. Using the app lets parents focus more on their families and less on stressful details.
Q: Where do pencils go on vacation?
With a chuckle, Brittney Underwood reads the joke off her phone to her five-year-old son Calvin. Smiling, Calvin points at the phone.
“Can we do the scavenger hunt?” he asks.
Brittney and Calvin are sitting in one of the waiting rooms at Cincinnati Children’s. The joke and the scavenger hunt game come courtesy of Caren, a mobile app that the hospital created for its patients and their parents.
“We can’t right now,” says Brittney, glancing at the app again. “Our appointment is in five minutes. We’ll play afterward, OK?”
Delivering great service for families under stress
Cincinnati Children’s knows that few things worry parents more than having a sick or injured child. If a hospital visit becomes necessary, the last thing parents need is to struggle to find the right clinic or keep track of a parking pass. Bryan Towne, Senior Director – Information Services at Cincinnati Children’s, understands this and is proud of his organization’s efforts to make every step of the healthcare process as hassle-free as possible.
“Families who come to our hospital are often under a lot of stress,” says Towne. “Our entire staff—from our medical providers to our registrars to our IT department—works as a team to make every visit seamless, integrated, and easy for families. The healthcare industry has become more consumer oriented, with increasing focus on choice. That makes providing great service even more important, and it’s one way we differentiate ourselves.”
The hospital stands out for more than its high level of service. It’s a complex, innovative institution that continually pushes the envelope when it comes to exceptional care, and U.S. News & World Report ranked Cincinnati Children’s as the second-best children’s hospital in the United States in its 2018-2019 Honor Roll. To maintain its stellar reputation, Cincinnati Children’s looks for ways to do things better and meet the changing needs of the families it serves.
“People increasingly turn to mobile devices to get their information, so we wanted to deliver that familiar experience to them and meet their digital expectations,” says Towne. “We looked at a lot of other hospital apps, and many of them just serve up information that you could easily get from a search engine—like opening and closing times and directions to the campus. We wanted to go beyond that, so we came up with the idea of a digital concierge, and that’s where Caren began.”
Cincinnati Children’s used its experience with the web and social media, along with extensive input from its online patient community, to design an app that would be as useful as possible. Through Caren, families can easily find their way through the medical center, look up locations and wait times at urgent care centers, and get real-time updates of their child’s surgery status. Caren can also give them a digital parking pass and let them store their parking location for later reference. For questions that aren’t already included in the app, Caren provides a natural language chatbot for answers, along with jokes and a scavenger hunt throughout the hospital.
Finding the right platform to build a great app
To build Caren, Cincinnati Children’s needed an agile, scalable, feature-rich cloud platform. The hospital wanted to deliver a successful first version of the app right away and then add functionality easily over time. Cincinnati Children’s had experience with Microsoft development, and its developers were impressed by Microsoft Azure and services like Azure Cognitive Services Language Understanding for natural language interaction.
“Because Azure is a Microsoft platform, we had a level of familiarity that made it a comfortable development environment, which saved us time and effort,” says Towne. “And with it, we gained access to the whole range of Azure services, including Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which we used to build our chatbot. It inspired us to investigate new possibilities and add features we hadn’t thought of before.”
Marianne James, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Cincinnati Children’s, concurs. “It’s essential to us that we deploy trusted and reliable technologies to support the work that goes on here at the hospital,” she explains. “We knew that Microsoft had the products and the expertise necessary to help us deliver a great app for our families. Microsoft has also made tremendous investments in privacy and security, and that took a lot of the burden off of our developers. Our confidence in the Microsoft platform allowed us to make a cost-conscious decision. It also made sense to build on our existing Microsoft infrastructure rather than starting from scratch.”
As Business Systems Architect at Cincinnati Children’s, Ray Stone helps map out the hospital’s future IT strategies and work out how best to achieve them. He saw Microsoft technologies as providing flexibility in addition to familiarity, thanks to tools like Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for Xamarin.
“We had experience with .NET, but we didn’t have expertise in building native iOS and Android apps, and we wanted Caren to be cross-platform,” says Stone. “With Visual Studio Tools for Xamarin, we can write the code once and then deploy it on multiple mobile platforms rather than maintaining separate code bases.”
Cincinnati Children’s developers built the pilot version of Caren in approximately three months, and they found the process to be extremely smooth. Using Azure DevOps, they were able to quickly create new builds and push them out to mobile devices for testing. Cincinnati Children’s invited families to download the app for beta testing and asked them to provide feedback.
“We got a strong response from families, with lots of positive comments,” says James. “We started putting flyers about the app into information packets given to patients. Within three weeks we hit 1,000 users, and that number continues to grow. Using Microsoft tools, we quickly delivered a valuable resource to families that makes their lives easier during challenging times.”
She continues, “We put our patients first in everything we do, and that includes technology. We want to provide the functionality that is most important to them. What we’re most proud of with Caren is that patients are already seeing value from it—that’s what makes us smile.”
Providing a breath of fresh air for stressed parents
For Brittney and Calvin Underwood, visits to Cincinnati Children’s are a fact of life. Calvin was born with a rare genetic mutation whose effects have required multiple surgeries and regular visits to monitor his health. Brittney has been using Caren since the beta program, and she uses it all the time now.
“Visiting a hospital with your child can be confusing and overwhelming,” she says. “Something as simple as not having to remember where I parked my car or put my ticket helps me cope better—I just scan the QR code in Caren instead. And any time Calvin has an outpatient procedure, the surgery waiting tracker shows us where he is in the surgical process and when we can see him. That way I know I have time to go outside for a breath of fresh air or get something to eat without missing anything, and I’ll be there for him when he wakes up. It makes the experience so much easier.”
Beyond the practical utility of the app, Underwood has found additional benefits. “I think Caren definitely makes me a better parent for my child,” she says. “Using it reduces the stress of waiting and worrying and lets me focus more on Calvin and his recovery. I can really be there for him fully.”
For details about how Cincinnati Children’s developed its app, read the technical blog.
Using Microsoft tools, we quickly delivered a valuable resource to families that makes their lives easier during challenging times.