The hospital of the future
If you close your eyes and picture the hospital of the future, a few images may spring to mind. Robots wandering the hallways and checking patient vitals. Machines dishing out medications, or performing complex surgeries.
While these would not be foolish ideals to aim for, the Chief Executive of Health Infrastructure, Rebecca Wark, believes sometimes it is the simpler innovations that make the largest difference to patient experience.
“There is something to be said for simplicity when planning for future hospitals,” Wark said.
“Sweeping innovations that drastically alter clinical practice are important, but so are the more basic technology upgrades that make a big difference to patients and their families feeling comfortable — like better Wi-Fi connections, so that visitors stay by bedsides for longer.”
Wark’s aspirations for yet-to-be-invented healthcare technologies are of a similar ilk: simple tools that support people through the hospital system, or minimise clinician involvement.
“I would love to get to a point where clinicians can collect data from smart watches, so that you don’t have to get an ECG the second you get into hospital. Or have a communications system that sends you a text message when it is your turn to be seen in a fracture clinic, so patients don’t have to sit for hours when their child breaks an ankle.
“It may seem counterintuitive to prioritise simplicity in healthcare procurement, but tools like this can often have the most meaningful impact on a patient’s mental or physical health.”
An ongoing theme
This kind of thinking is necessary as Wark’s team plan and deliver NSW Health’s $10.8 billion infrastructure pipeline. Alongside simplicity, Wark says thinking small — not big — is sometimes more effective in achieving health outcomes.
“People tend to think bigger is better, but within the hospital environment, the opposite can be true. When you make hospitals more compact and configure spaces to achieve good ergonomics and visibility, then you make it easier for clinicians to monitor patients and resources go further.”
Smaller wards may also better suit the future healthcare landscape. With the rise of virtual care, Wark anticipates that hospitals will see fewer acute patients over time; despite the rise of chronic disease and an ageing population.
“There is a large move towards at-home and community-based care, and we are working closely with our partners to facilitate this. People don’t generally like attending hospitals; and hospital care is not always the most cost-effective way to treat people. So, technologies that altogether remove the need for hospital-based treatment are incredibly valuable.”
A big challenge in this shift will be assuring the quality of the digital patient experience. Here, innovation — including advances in wearable devices that monitor people’s vital signs at home — will play a key role.
Such technologies, like the Apple or Garmin watch, are already in use throughout the world. However, tools that further liken the at-home patient experience to hospital-grade care will be pivotal, according to Dr Stephanie Allen, Head of Healthcare at Big Four Consultancy Deloitte.
“A big challenge in our push towards more widespread virtual care will be about assuring the quality of the at-home patient experience. We need to service people in the home at a level that is equal to, if not better than, in hospital — and technology will play a key role in this,” she said.
“In an ideal scenario, we would have all the health data we need collected from individuals at home via sensors and devices and instantly uploaded to some kind of operational command centre. Here nurses and doctors could see it in real time and triage and administer treatment accordingly.”
Many of the technologies that enable virtual care could also help with a nationwide push towards ‘mental and physical wellbeing’ — a paradigm set to supplement the more traditional approach of tackling ‘illness’ and ‘injury’ within health care.
“Wearable technologies that measure your heart rate, oxygen levels, mood, physical movement and calorific intake, for example, will not only help nurses keep an eye on patients’ conditions from afar but also help individuals make informed decisions and proactive healthy choices about their own lifestyle,” Allen said.
Technologies that help prevent hospital readmission are also valuable. For example, Royal Prince Alfred’s virtual hospital in Sydney recently launched a tool for vascular lower leg ulcers to promote healing, prompting patients to wear and change compression stockings, or follow up with their GP.
Dr Allen said that while the engineering behind many of these technologies may be complex, they offer simple solutions to existing healthcare challenges.
“With the advancements in cloud engineering, interoperability of systems and data, and the promise of 5G, we have many of the ingredients we need to achieve the national healthcare outcomes. We now need to pull the threads together in a simple, intuitive and user-friendly way.”
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