The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of the healthcare system. As we slowly emerge, expect that trend to continue.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic upended the world in ways that are normally associated with global conflict. For many, the measures to control the spread of the virus have gone from temporary inconveniences to a new way of life – but at a huge cost. From South Africa to Portugal, the United Kingdom to Japan, doctors and healthcare officials warned of hospitals on the brink of collapse under the weight of new cases arriving each day.
However, a less discussed and more positive aspect of the past year has been the digitisation of healthcare systems around the world, driven by the transformative effects of Industry 4.0. This has manifested in the rise of “smart” frameworks; making extensive use of emergent technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) in order to create more integrated, efficient spaces that better suit the needs of their users and occupants.
For many, the term “smart” conjures images of apps, but smart healthcare is much more than that. It’s about creating a healing environment where the increasing digitisation of the building, processes and infrastructure mean that the technology works in unison to deliver benefits to the people connecting to it. As noted by Siemens, “In a smart hospital, the focus is on the digital systems and the potential they offer to the building itself to effectively become a member of the team.”
What the pandemic has done is boost existing interest and adoption of smart technology across the board. Even before Covid hit, healthcare executives were struggling with issues around the safety of their facilities, the quality of care provided to their patients and costly workflow inefficiencies that were impacting their bottom line. An additional issue these executives are dealing with is a global population that is not only getting larger, but also ageing. By 2030, the world will have more than 8.5 billion people and by 2050, the number of people over the age of 60 will have doubled in comparison to 2015.
We have seen this smart digital adoption across several different healthcare areas. Telemedicine already accounts for roughly ⅔ of outpatient appointments across the United States during 2020 and research from Purdue University also suggests that telehealth can reduce the amount of time people spend in the hospital itself, with no corresponding fall in the quality of care provided. However, one of the newest and most effective technology solutions to address these mounting challenges has been the integration of Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) into hospital processes.
This development has been powered primarily by the growing appreciation and value of data, the foundation of all digital transformation and “smart” initiatives. In a world in which data is referred to as the “new oil,” it is perhaps understandable that effective use of data will be vital in tackling the resource problems facing healthcare today. However, to make the right decisions that will fundamentally change the healthcare ecosystem, that data needs to be captured throughout a facility—as well as the insight to make changes that positively impact staff and patients.
The success of a smart hospital is based on connecting diverse data into actionable insights that lead to optimal care and increased operational efficiency. By using RTLS to identify, track, locate and monitor the condition of every patient, staff and assets in an organization, executives now have the healthcare facility business intelligence that helps deliver better outcomes for patients—as well as the hospital’s bottom line.
Practical examples of this are dotted across the healthcare landscape, over a large variety of applications. Take something as simple as hygiene management, especially crucial during the pandemic. GWA Hygiene, a leading hospital hygiene provider, found that only half of the workers in one of its partner hospitals were washing their hands properly – increasing patient risk of infection.
With the twin goals of improving infection control amongst workers, visitors, and patients; as well as streamlining existing IT processes, GWA installed cloud-based IT infrastructure in the hospital.
As Tobias Gebhardt, managing Director of GWA Hygiene noted “We should not leave infection control teams alone with outdated tools. We needed a totally new tool set for the hospital management to better understand and break infection chains.”
The response also included the incorporation of RTLS locators and tags on hand sanitiser dispensers throughout the hospital which provided valuable real-time insights into usage frequency, usage time and more. The result was significant savings in both time, money and resources – allowing the company to upgrade its dispensers, rather than having to enact a wholescale replacement program.
Elderly care is another area that has benefited from location tracking technology. With a growing number of Alzheimer’s patients in their 50 retirement centres across Austria and German, 7iD was presented with the challenge of monitoring the whereabouts of their residents and preventing them wandering off premises and running away.
In response, the company implemented a comprehensive Bluetooth-based RTLS program. Smartwatch-style trackers were distributed to patients which monitored their actions and proximity to certain areas and staff, setting off alarms if rules were broken. Pinpoint accuracy was delivered with limited hardware requirements. The power efficiency of the technology also meant that time was saved on recharging the devices.
It allowed them to not only expand their operations to other sites, but also diversify their offering; adding support to prevent the separations of newborn babies from their mothers; a huge problem in eastern countries.
Workflow is another area that has benefited from the transition to smart healthcare and location services. This is especially egregious in healthcare as the potential benefits are so great. Research from Columbia University highlights how valuable predictive analytics can be in reducing patient waiting times. In this scenario, data is used to better predict the number of patients that are likely to be in the emergency room at any one time so that resources can be planned accordingly.
This was the experience of Artisight, a US-based solutions provider. As noted by Chris Heddon, VP of Product, hospitals and clinics often have very complicated workflows. He noted “Cancer centre workflows can include up to four appointments, which is a big opportunity for process optimization. At peak hours, a high-volume clinic may have up to 200 people in each workflow at a given time and you need to know where each one of them is.”
“One of the most valuable resources in a cancer center is the infusion chair, which many clinics do not have great utilization metrics around. Tracking patient location with RTLS allows Artisight to build data-driven resource utilisation models that ensure the highest possible utilisation of infusion chairs and other valuable resources.”
He added “Orthopedic clinics have similar challenges – ideally appointments can be optimized to hour between when the patient arrives in the parking lot to when and when they leave. The only way to do that is to know where clinicians and patients are at all times. So how do we make them more efficient?”
By incorporating tracking systems into their existing computer vision and artificial intelligence infrastructure, they were able to create substantial revenue gains and efficiency savings for their hospital clients. Operating rooms normally cost over $100 a minute to operate, but implementing the technology meant not only an increase in on-time case starts, but also a reduction in operating room turnover time; allowing more operations to take place and maximising the space; a 16% productivity gain for one their client hospitals. Staff overtime was reduced significantly and the gains in overall case volume (from 1400 to 1800 in a single month) meant the centre did not have to build extra operating rooms to increase business.
The next decade will present new opportunities and technologies that create value and dramatically improve patient care. By integrating smart infrastructure technologies such as RTLS into hospitals, healthcare providers are going to be able to increase efficiencies, maximise patient comfort, and cope with the difficulties of tending to patients in a modern world. Ambitious goals and global change require new ways of working where staff, patients and visitors are supported throughout their journey. This requires the recognition of the vital role that technology, especially digital transformation, can play in the process. This approach heralds a new age of the smart hospital.