How is technology transforming our hospitals?
With resources more constrained than ever before, healthcare providers are turning to tech to boost capacity and improve patient outcomes. Pelle Svensson, Market Development Manager, Product Center Short Range Radio, u-blox explains.
Hospitals are packed with contrasts. Ultra-modern technology lives alongside tools that haven’t changed much for decades. You’ll find some of the world’s brightest minds working in institutions that, from a procedural perspective, can traditionally be slow to innovate. Hospitals contain highly sterile environments, but are also home to some extremely resistant strains of bacteria. And while everyone appreciates the central role hospitals play when it comes to the well-being of humanity, in many parts of the world, facilities are still required to operate within highly constrained budgets.
These financial limitations are just one of the headaches facing healthcare providers. Others include ageing populations, and the increase in lifestyle influenced non-communicable diseases. These challenges, and others, are forcing healthcare leaders to look to digital solutions. Many of these build on the increased availability of sensors, wireless communication technology, cloud storage and data analytics capabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the enormous pressure that has resulted on hospitals, has served to accelerate this digital transformation journey. The result will have – and in some cases is already having – wide-ranging impacts on when we physically attend healthcare facilities, how those facilities operate, and even the way the buildings are designed.
Here, we outline some of the trends that are happening, driven by digital transformation in healthcare.
Remote care provision
The advantages of remotely delivered healthcare, or telemedicine, have been discussed and publicised for some time. However, despite this, telemedicine didn’t see genuinely widespread adoption until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
At Stanford Healthcare in the US, for example, the number of telehealth consultations taking place daily by the end of March 2020 had risen by 50x compared to previous months. Meanwhile, a McKinsey & Company study carried out in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic, found that while just 11% of participants had used telehealth during 2019, more than 75% were interested in accessing healthcare services in this way in the future.
Put simply, it took the fear of contracting a sometimes deadly disease to convince many patients, governments and regulators of the benefits of virtual healthcare. And while the shift may have been driven by the pandemic, this new way of accessing care is expected to persist. An Accenture survey published in May 2020 found that 54% of those who used video conferencing to communicate with healthcare providers during the pandemic expect to do so more post-COVID-19 than they did beforehand.
These communication channels will also play an important role in enabling other e-health solutions that change the relationship between care providers and their patients. Examples include wearable sensors that alert the patient, and potentially also their caregiver, if something is amiss. This enables individuals to safely remain at home unless they absolutely need to attend hospital, which improves their quality of life and reduces pressure on hospital beds and other medical facilities.
It’s common to see doctors and nurses hurrying through hospital corridors. Robotic assistants are rarer, but their prevalence is growing. Driven in part by the pandemic, robots are being rolled-out to relieve pressure on human staff, and to improve their safety.
Patients with suspected COVID-19 attending the university hospital in Antwerp, Belgium, for example, were met and initially assessed by a Zorabots robot. This device subsequently directed them to the correct department, based on their symptoms. At the Circolo hospital in Italy, COVID-19 patients interacted with their clinicians via a touchscreen on a robot, which helped minimise the amount of face-to-face contact necessary between patients and staff, to stem the spread of infection.
Robots can help enhance hospital staff safety in other ways as well. For example, they can reduce the need for humans to enter potentially contaminated spaces to disinfect them. UVD Robots has created a WiFi-enabled autonomous ground vehicle that uses a UV-C ultraviolet light to cut the spread of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. It’s been clinically verified, and used extensively in a number of hospitals around the world.
Another ideal use for robots in healthcare is to deliver food, medical supplies and bedsheets. And as they become more sophisticated, further use cases for robots are emerging. Diligent Robotics’ Moxi robot, for instance, has a highly dexterous arm that enables it to collaborate on jobs that were previously the sole domain of human staff.
Lastly, when we think of robots, we traditionally think of machines that move along the ground. But that doesn’t need to be the case: drones are effectively flying robots, and are being put to use to support healthcare workers around the world. In Ghana, for instance, drones were used to deliver patient samples to testing labs. And in China’s Wuhan and Hebei provinces, unmanned aerial vehicles transported medical and commercial cargo in COVID-19 quarantine areas.
No more searching for equipment
A not insignificant amount of healthcare worker time is spent tracking down where patients, staff and equipment are. A survey by nursingtimes.net found that nurses spend nearly 40 hours per month looking for equipment. Worse, the survey also found that one time in six, those staff are ultimately unable to find what they are searching for.
This valuable employee time could be much better spent, which is why increasing numbers of hospitals are enlisting the help of technology to keep track of people and equipment. RFID tags enable automatic inventory tracking, to ensure supply levels are topped up before they run out.
People and mobile assets can be tracked using Bluetooth-based indoor location services. Standard Bluetooth beacons provide room-level accuracy, while more recent Bluetooth direction-finding technology can provide sub-meter-level accuracy.
By blending this type of indoor location data with other sources of information, some companies are offering hospitals new ways to boost compliance with hygiene measures and social distancing, to reduce the spread of infection. The more pervasive this type of technology becomes in medical settings, the newer applications for it we will see. The outcomes are likely to include improved patient safety, greater process efficiency and an increased proportion of clinical staff time spent caring for patients.
Electronic patient records
Perhaps the most impactful aspect of digital transformation in healthcare, though, is the electronic patient record. These important documents were once hand-written notes on paper, which meant they lacked transparency, were difficult to share for care or research purposes, were insecure, and in some cases, difficult to read.
By digitising these records, authorised care providers, wherever they are, and whatever device they are using, can securely access a patient’s medical history. This provides particular value when a patient is transferred between departments within a hospital, or to another facility altogether. And with patients’ permission, anonymised records can be shared with researchers, to improve insights into a variety of conditions.
Of course, the highly sensitive data that health records contain means they can be a target for criminals looking to steal the information. It’s important the records are appropriately secured, and handled in line with applicable standards and regulations, which can differ between countries and regions.
Evolving hospital buildings
With digitisation and the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic driving changes in the way hospitals operate, it is inevitable that the physical buildings will evolve as well. Pandemic facilities, which are already commonplace in Asian countries, due to the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak, will likely become a common feature in hospitals elsewhere as well. More broadly, hospital buildings will need to become more flexible, to enable those working in them to respond effectively to whatever events arise.
The enormous quantities of real-time data emanating from the ever-increasing portfolio of digitally delivered care, provides opportunities for hospitals to create ‘command centres’. AdventHealth and GE Healthcare Partners launched one in 2019 in Orlando. This facility helps healthcare professionals orchestrate care across nine health campuses. Staffed 24 hours a day, the centre uses artificial intelligence to support decision-making in areas such as prioritisation, patient transfers, and the dispatch of ambulances and helicopters. This type of command centre enables healthcare facilities to optimise the way they use their scarce resources, with the aim of providing patients with the best-possible care. Expect to see more control rooms of this type in hospitals of the future.
Helicopter landing pads are relatively common at major hospitals, but tomorrow’s healthcare facilities will likely also need drone ports, to really unleash the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles as logistics aids. Moreover, by integrating this technology into other areas of hospital operations, there will be opportunities for further tech and business model innovation, both in healthcare and beyond.
These examples highlight some of the possibilities digital transformation offers to healthcare providers and patients alike, and underline how the pandemic has accelerated this journey. With unprecedented constraints on healthcare facilities around the world, technology is offering ways to alleviate some of the enormous pressure on staff and budgets, meaning more of these precious resources can be directed where they are so desperately needed.