Words by Katie Puckett
Smart hospitals aren’t just more efficient. They can help people heal faster too.
Healthcare has been slow to capitalize on the opportunities that digital technology offers, be it generating new insights by combining data sources or automating building functions. This is partly because of the need to protect highly sensitive patient data, says WSP‘s Nolan Rome. “That was a barrier to healthcare being able to leverage technology in the same way as other sectors. Before there would have been a public network and a vendor network for all the public systems, the HVAC controls, the infotainment and patient wifi access, and all the secure data would be on a separate network. We’re becoming much more sophisticated around that — now in most cases, we can converge all of the systems onto a single platform, protected by software security. That’s unlocked so many opportunities. We are helping owners to integrate all of the systems that they already have, and use those to make their business more resilient, whether that’s around energy savings and sustainability, or to make nurses and doctors’ lives a little easier, or to make more informed decisions about how their business will operate five years from now.”
“If you’re running a 100-bed hospital and everybody is leaving one day earlier, that’s a significant saving”Simon Kydd, WSP
For many technologies, the business case wasn’t always easy to quantify, but that’s changing too. Integrating systems and harvesting their data allows owners to take a step back and examine whether or not investments are working as they should, says Rome. “When you’re making decisions about patient rooms that you’ll have for the next 30 years, what information do you need to decide whether an investment has been successful or to make improvements? We can measure how a patient infotainment system is used by clicks and time spent, to look at whether people are ordering food or looking at their patient data, or whether they’re just breezing right through that to get to the next movie. If they’re not, you can then look at why not. We can do that across the 250 or so systems installed across a hospital to build an umbrella strategy to understand if these systems are being used in the best way possible.”
Making physical changes to a hospital is disruptive and hard to reverse; technology allows constant, incremental updates in response to real-time conditions. “With software, you can play with it behind the scenes and test it before pushing it out,” says Rome. “There is still some cost, but it’s not like changing the built environment, where there’s infection risk, downtime and loss of revenue.”
Main article: the future of healthcare
COVID-19 has left healthcare systems around the world reeling — and pandemics are just one of the heightened threats humanity faces over the coming decades. How will we cope?
Automated building systems and seamless information transfer don’t just make running hospitals easier. They also improve the experience for patients and their families. For example, providing them with better information before and during their visit can make it less stressful, says Simon Kydd at WSP. This could be delivered direct to their smartphone or tablet via an app. “The app would know what time you need to be there and it knows where you live, so it could tell you about different transport options and let you know what the traffic will be like at that time of day. If you decide to drive, a parking space can be made available. The app can show you what entrance to take, how you need to sign in and which waiting room to go to — all the wayfinding can be done on your device. And if your appointment is delayed for whatever reason, the app can reassure you that your car parking stay has been extended, so you don’t have to worry about getting a ticket.”
The applications of this technology in a clinical environment are potentially even more valuable — as when combined with RFID tags, for example. “If a physician or a caregiver with a radio frequency chip on their badge walks into the room, the system instantly knows they are there and their picture could pop up on the TV screen,” says Jason Schroer at HKS. “If patient wristbands also incorporated RFID tags, building systems could automatically set the lighting or temperature to suit their preferences. Hospital managers could look at a map of the facility and know exactly where everybody is, and you could do the same with medical supplies. Traditionally those systems were set up to just track where things are, but now we can use them to study how people are actually using the spaces and make adjustments. As designers we’re interested in that technology because we can learn from it by observing behaviour. From a client’s perspective, it’s a way to manage their resources more effectively.
Hospitals X hotels
“We’re seeing a huge merging of hospitality with healthcare, particularly in the US,” says HKS’s Jason Schroer. “In health systems where there is choice, we’re hearing terms like ‘retail health’ or ‘healthcare consumerism’.” In a hotel room, the guest can control the lighting, the air-conditioning, the entertainment; they can order room service. “That’s becoming part of the expectation in healthcare. It’s a big jump in terms of the capabilities of patient rooms and it’s more and more prevalent.”