As digital technologies become increasingly familiar in our day-to-day lives, the distinction between physical and digital reality is already blurring. This is as true in the world of medicine and healthcare, as it is in sectors such as travel and retail.
There are already apps we can use on laptops, tablets or mobile phones to interact with medical professionals, such as ‘GP at Hand’ developed by Babylon Health to provide virtual advice from general practitioners. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has already rolled out nationwide electronic health records that can be accessed by registered health professionals in any location: hospitals, clinics, GP surgeries and patients’ homes.
So what if we can design a truly smart hospital? A building with a digital ‘brain’ and artificial intelligence that can connect with a patient’s needs and meet them in every respect? It’s closer than you might think. Imagine a hospital where the building knows that you have broken an arm and can auto-schedule the appropriate medical team, treatment room, equipment and medical supplies, and send you an invitation to attend an appointment with the right clinical staff?
It is a scenario that could make interactions with hospitals a whole lot easier than it is today. But delivering these smart services in most of our existing hospitals poses a challenge. Hospital buildings are often ageing, and their IT systems lack integration having been designed and implemented piecemeal over a period of years. This makes it difficult to devise a digital strategy that integrates a wide range of medical, operational, and buildings systems, while giving patients access to the information they need across multiple devices.
To design a truly smart hospital we have to rethink the building to accommodate the ‘internet of things’ where physical objects meet digital technology. Only on a central digital platform can all the strands of running a hospital – its services, infrastructure and equipment – be brought together successfully to operate in a truly smart way.
How can we achieve this? I believe the starting point must be human-centred design based on what works well in our hospitals and what could work better.
Let’s consider some specific examples. From surveys conducted by many hospitals, we know that individuals are happier with their experience when they feel that they are being heard and receiving a response. A delay feels much more manageable if the reason for it is explained and a time at which it will end is given, for example. So if patients and visitors could join hospital data services before they arrived at the hospital site, they could be advised of any hold ups. They could perform an online check-in, reserve and pay for car parking in a specific bay close to their destination within the hospital campus. Hospital staff could be ready to receive them, aware of their imminent arrival. Smart technology could provide ‘way-finding’ or location services information tailored to individual needs, avoiding stairs or busy corridors, if necessary. In an emergency, smart technology could locate and make contact with key personnel such as a cardiologist or equipment such as a defibrillator, in real-time.
On hospital wards, patients and staff could interact with building services via a tablet-style device, or talk to a voice assistant to request services. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) outputs could be altered automatically. Smart lighting set up to align with the circadian rhythms that govern our mental and physical health is of huge benefit: it assists in the recovery process and makes use of natural light making it energy efficient and cost effective, too.
Security could be enhanced through the use of digital facial recognition technology. This could permit or prevent access to restricted areas, and ensure the treatment of patients only by bona fide clinicians. Subject to the necessary privacy agreements, the technology could be extended to patients and visitors, matching children with parents or guardians for security purposes, for example.
In their own right, these technologies can improve the way our hospitals work, but unless all digital channels are interlinked seamlessly and tied into the way the hospital is built, they cannot be used to their full potential. A truly smart hospital must be designed and constructed to make the most of new and evolving technologies – it must have that central platform or ‘digital brain’.
Much of the technology to design a truly smart hospital already exists, or is on the horizon. Our challenges are more to do with our readiness to commit sufficient resource to build them. A hospital commonly takes 10 years from inception to delivery, and it can have a 60-year life span. So it has to be technologically smart, resilient and, above all, flexible and adaptable to changing healthcare needs.
In my view, it is an investment worth making. Smart hospitals make life better for patients, visitors and staff, save time and money, and reduce impact on the environment to the benefit of us all.