Sep 11 2023

How Technological Upgrades and Grants Support Better Community Care

Community health centers seek to better patient services amid tight budgets.

As frontline clinicians at Baldwin, Mich.-based Family Health Care tended to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tina McConnell and her IT team were hard at work behind the scenes to modernize technology for improved care delivery.

During the early days of the crisis, the community health center, which has six clinics, launched telehealth services by repurposing available tablets and bringing them to the parking lot so clinicians could conduct video visits with patients, who remained in their cars.

Family Health Care began a digital transformation in 2020 that included new telehealth carts with webcams in exam rooms, curbside pharmacy pickup service using video doorbells and IP security cameras to alert pharmacists of customers and bolster security, and new Cisco Meraki switches to handle increased bandwidth requirements.

Today, the community health center is a state-of-the-art organization that uses Microsoft 365 for better communication and collaboration and new uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) to boost business continuity. Most of these upgrades were paid for by federal COVID-19 relief grants.

“The funding helped us digitally transform our practice and replace our aging infrastructure,” says McConnell, CIO and chief security and privacy officer. “We could not have made so many large-scale improvements in the past three years without it.”

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Technology Lesson Learned from Community Health Centers

Community health centers, also known as federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), offer critical access to primary care services — including behavioral health and dental — to uninsured, underinsured and underserved populations.

FQHCs often operate on tight budgets, but during the pandemic, many have used a combination of grants and their own funds to innovate with technology to improve patient services, increase staff productivity and operate more efficiently.

Some have migrated old on-premises software to new cloud-based applications, including electronic health records (EHRs). Others have doubled down on virtual care, invested in automation to improve workflows or embraced modern data analytics.

“We know that community health centers serve people who experience the brunt of health inequity,” says Julia Skapik, medical director for informatics at the National Association of Community Health Centers. “It’s important to determine what services are needed so they don’t experience health disparities. All of that starts with data and understanding how we can better meet their needs.”

FQHCs generate petabytes of data. If they’re able to leverage better data analytics, they can be a lot more efficient and effective, Skapik says.


The percentage of Lowell Community Health Center’s technology investments paid for by state and federal pandemic-related relief grants over the past three years

Source: Lowell Community Health Center

Driving Digital Transformation in a Health Crisis

When McConnell joined Family Health Care in early 2020, she inherited decade-old technology and software that needed replacing. As the organization scrambled to adapt to the pandemic, McConnell helped modernize tools and create new workflows.

Using grant funds, McConnell purchased mobile carts and furnished them with webcams and monitors to support virtual care. She bought Windows-based tablets and remote patient monitoring tools, such as blood pressure monitors and pulse oximeters.

“The silver lining for us was truly the influx of money, which gave us an opportunity to update our technology that we could not have afforded otherwise,” she adds.

The IT staff deployed 19 Cisco Meraki MS Series cloud-managed switches to improve network speeds and reliability. “That gave us the extra bandwidth needed to run telehealth and accommodate all that video and audio,” McConnell says.

Federal relief grants allowed the organization to invest in virtual care and comprehensively upgrade IT infrastructure, office technology and software. McConnell purchased new HP ProDesk desktops and ProBook laptops for its 339 staff members, as well as four new multifunction printers and one envelope printer. She also replaced aging storage hardware with a new Dell storage array.

Family Health Care also strengthened cybersecurity with two Cisco Meraki MX250 security appliances and installed more than two dozen UPSs from Vertiv’s Liebert and Schneider Electric’s APC for battery backup power and to protect against surges.

“When you are a nonprofit, it’s easy to sacrifice things you don’t need day to day, but UPSs give us business continuity,” McConnell adds.

Tina McConnell
The silver lining for us was truly the influx of money, which gave us an opportunity to update our technology that we could not have afforded otherwise.”

Tina McConnell CIO and Chief Security and Privacy Officer, Family Health Care

Last year, the health center invested in automation tools, including Nuance’s Dragon Medical One speech recognition software, which allows doctors to dictate patient notes. It improves productivity and replaces medical scribes needed to fill other positions, she says.

McConnell also deployed automation tools for the organization’s pharmacies, including drug-dispensing technology and an interactive voice response system that answers phone calls and automates refill requests. As part of the improvements, the IT department added videoconferencing equipment including webcams and LED TVs in conference rooms so staff can hold virtual meetings.

Though most people have returned to in-person visits at the center, telehealth remains an important service, particularly in behavioral health. Some patients with limited transportation options or mobility also rely on virtual care, McConnell says.

While the pandemic-related grants have dried up, the work continues. McConnell’s team recently upgraded its VMware server farm and is completing a migration to the Microsoft 365 cloud.

Family Health Care’s patients and staff now can reap the benefits of the new technology, McConnell adds. “We’ve done so much in the past three years. My staff and I are exhausted, but we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” she says.

LEARN MORE: How the modern data platform fuels success.

Finding More Innovation with Data Analytics

Over on the East Coast, Massachusetts-based Lowell Community Health Center has focused on data analytics as part of its digital transformation efforts to achieve greater health equity for its diverse patient population, says Chief Strategy and Financial Officer Brenda Rodriguez.

The organization’s analytics team now uses Microsoft Power BI and Tableau’s business intelligence tools to produce real-time reports and develop data visualization dashboards. That enables employees, from management to care teams, to review their performance metrics, better understand their patient population and make improvements, says Padma Sastry, senior director of digital transformation.

Lowell also has invested in new Lenovo ThinkPad laptops for staff, upgraded Wi-Fi, and replaced a traditional phone system with a cloud-based phone and call center system.

The health center saw this modernized approach bear fruit during the pandemic. When COVID-19 vaccines were first made available, Lowell saw only a small percentage of patients sign up to get vaccinated.

When it recognized that language was a major barrier for its patient population, the health center did outreach using a mix of people and technology, Rodriguez says. Lowell deployed intelligent automation software that analyzed the EHR to identify patients eligible for vaccines and also divided them up based on their language preferences.

That enabled the health center’s linguistically diverse staff to target their efforts. “Immediately after we did outreach, either by phone or text, we would see the numbers of vaccination sign-ups spike,” Rodriguez says.

1 in 11

The number of Americans who use community health centers

Source:, “America’s Health Centers: 2022 Snapshot,” Aug. 1, 2022

The strategy worked, supporting the health center’s aim to improve health equity.

“We are more data-driven,” Sastry says. “It helps us identify care gaps and opportunities, such as how to do better outreach.”

Harry Campbell/Theispot

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