Throughout the Cancer Information Services offices in Fred Hutchinson's Yale Building, nervous tension and crossed fingers were quickly replaced with cheers and jubilation last month. In a long-awaited phone call, the National Cancer Institute announced that Fred Hutchinson was chosen as one of only four coordinating centers nationwide to operate its cancer-information and cancer-referral phone service.
The five-year future contract award, anticipated to be worth more than $15 million, will be effective Jan. 15 and will include a community-partnership program and research coordination. The expanded call center will serve Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
The award marks the first time the Northwest CIS office has had to compete against other CIS offices to keep its call-center contract. "We were competing against California, the largest call center in country," said Nancy Zbaren, CIS project director. "It's a huge honor and a coup for the center to win this."
Presently, there are 15 regional offices in the CIS network; all will continue their partnership efforts under the new contract. However, as part of a regional reconfiguration, only four of the previous 14 call centers will remain. In addition to Fred Hutchinson's, the other call centers will be located at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, and the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Calls will jump from 9,000 to 26,000
Created in 1976, the CIS is a free source for the latest, most accurate cancer information. It provides scientific information in understandable language, partners with community organizations in developing education efforts to reach people without easy access to cancer information and services, and researches methods to promote healthy behaviors and to effectively communicate about cancer. Through its national network of regional offices, the CIS serves the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin and Pacific Islands.
"The CIS staff provide an invaluable service for thousands of people worried about cancer," said Dr. Lee Hartwell, center president and director. "As center employees, their dedication and high standards make us all proud to have them as representatives for information about cancer." Hartwell serves as principal investigator of the CIS, along with co-investigator Dr. Deborah Bowen.
With the reduction in sites, the Northwest CIS office expects their call volume to jump from about 9,000 to 26,000 calls annually. For the first time, they will also offer real-time, confidential instant messaging — a service called LiveHelp — through NCI's Web site. The office will extend its weekday hours to 8 p.m. to answer online inquiries from throughout the United States after the eastern coordinating centers close. The Seattle staff anticipates 3,300 instant messages in the coming year, a number likely to grow as demand increases.
Such rapid growth brings immediate staffing and space needs. "We keep talking about the price of victory," said Dawn Sittauer, CIS information-service manager. "It's great and we're thrilled, but we're also a little nervous. The work environment is going to be busier. We need to hire 12 information specialists and a training manager. The most information specialists that we have ever trained at one time is four." Call-center staff will relocate to temporary quarters in the Yale Building from January until May while their space is remodeled to accommodate additional employees.
Sittauer cited her office's reputation, management and institutional support as key ingredients for their success in winning the new contract. "We are evaluated and ranked quarterly in random quality assessments of our calls, and we are always at or near the top," she said. "We also have the best facilities in the network by far."
Zbaren said Fred Hutchison administration has been "incredibly supportive" of the CIS. "The Hutch really promotes the CIS, not only as a service to the region, but to the employees who work here," she said. "We're asked to participate in new employee orientation, and that always makes the staff feel really good since we are able to promote our service to our Fred Hutchinson colleagues."
Since the proposal was submitted last January, CIS has been waiting to hear the fate of the call center. "Our staff has had a long time to know that their jobs were on the line," Sittauer said. "Not one person left, which is a testimony to either their confidence or their ability to live in denial! Our staff retention during this time was an anomaly across the network, and I'm very happy because I'm going to need every single one of them."
Fred Hutchinson's CIS office is currently recruiting 12 information specialists to handle the anticipated increases in calls and online inquiries with their new contract. These employees will complete extensive training before providing free, one-on-one information about cancer prevention, screening, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, research, and smoking cessation to cancer patients and their families, health professionals, journalists, science writers and the public.
"It's a good job where you feel like you make a difference," said Nancy Zbaren, CIS project director. "Our staff is very happy and really appreciative of the work they do, and the environment in which they do it."
Center staff interested in these job openings should contact Jennifer Shotwell in the Human Resources Department at (206) 667-5630, or send a resume to her at mailstop J1-105.