Interview: Smart hospitals - the future for UK healthcare?

BBH explores the rise of the 'smart hospital' and what is needed to realise the vision

Smart hospitals can track patient movement via smartphones and will enable more joined-up, reactive services

Many people across the UK now use virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home on a daily basis to control things like lighting, heating, TV, music streaming….the list goes on.

But the same idea is now making the leap into commercial buildings, with so-called ‘smart hospitals’ expected to begin appearing in the UK over the next year or two.

Lots of trusts are starting to dip their toes into the water and we are working to get rid of any limitations

At the forefront of this revolution is built environment consultancy, WSP, which has managed smart hospital projects overseas and is seeing increased interest in this country.

Speaking to BBH, Simon Kydd, WSP’s healthcare expert, explains: “Essentially, it’s about a building-sized Alexa, creating an IT spine within a building that things can link into and where different services can all communicate with each other.”

For hospitals, he said there are three main areas where smart controls can have the biggest impact – assisting with clinical service provision, improving the patient experience, and controlling elements of the built environment, such as lighting, heating and ventilation.

“More and more hospitals are talking to us about it,” said Kydd.

Designing a truly-smart hospital with a digital ‘brain’ and artificial intelligence that can connect with a patient’s needs and meet them in every respect, is closer than you might think

“Lots of trusts are starting to dip their toes into the water and we are working to get rid of any limitations.”

An example of where UK hospitals might benefit from the ‘smart’ approach is for parking provision.

Kydd explains: “Hospitals when they send out appointment letters could link these to smart devices which provide options about how they can get to the hospital, including possibly the ability to pre-book parking spaces.

“Once they arrive the hospital will know they are there and, if their appointment overruns, the smart device will know and will automatically extend parking so they don’t have to run out and feed the meter.

“This sort of technology is already in existence, but it’s about making it work in a more-agile way.

WSP is already seeing interest in smart hospitals in the UK and predicts the approach will reach this country within the next two to three years. Image courtesy of Intouch with Health

“It’s about pushing the boundaries and our expectations of what technology can do.”

In another example, a US hospital recently replaced its traditional bell-and-buzzer nurse call system with a smart system where patients can use mobile devices to ask for a drink, for example. This request would then be delivered to the most-appropriate healthcare professional.

By using smart mobile devices in this way you cut down on cabling and infrastructure.

There are also hospitals that enable patients to check in on arrival, then allow them access to the relevant waiting and clinical areas, informing administration staff that they have arrived and following their journey.

“I think within the next year or two we will really start to see this take off in the UK,” said Kydd.

“We just need to work with software and hardware providers to ensure different systems from different companies can all work together seamlessly so we get the most out of this development.”

To design a truly-smart hospital we have to rethink the building to accommodate the ‘internet of things’ where physical objects meet digital technology

Matthew Marsen, WSP’s global lead for smart places, adds: “Designing a truly-smart hospital with a digital ‘brain’ and artificial intelligence that can connect with a patient’s needs and meet them in every respect, is 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 they are today.”

But, he warns, delivering these smart services could pose a challenge due to the ageing infrastructure at many UK hospitals.

“To design a truly-smart hospital we have to rethink the building to accommodate the ‘internet of things’ where physical objects meet digital technology,” he said.

“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.”

And any digital project needs the buy-in of everyone involved.

Smart buildings are packed full of new technologies, are a step into the unknown, and demand new approaches to asset management

Marsen advises: “Smart buildings are packed full of new technologies, are a step into the unknown, and demand new approaches to asset management.

“And arguably the biggest reason why they fail is because they scare the people who are supposed to occupy them.

“No matter how advanced the technology, if it alienates the people using the building, it won’t achieve what it was intended to.”

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