Lessons from COVID-19 Pandemic and the Smart Facilities of Tomorrow

Originally published in HIT Consultant

As much as we all wish it were otherwise, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives and upset stability around the world. If this worldwide disaster has a narrow silver lining, it is the many lessons it has to teach us moving forward. These lessons cover every aspect of life from business to relationships, but none more than healthcare. We have seen the incredible strain COVID-19 has put on our healthcare systems and providers including doctors, nurses, and administrators. Now we must be proactive in alleviating this strain for the sake of these providers and their patients if we intend to be ready for the next worldwide health crisis.

Just as we can be sure there will be another health crisis (COVID-19 has proven that true), we can at least take solace in the fact that our technology will continue to improve and advance. And as it does, we will be able to implement revolutionary solutions that help us prepare for emergencies while generally raising the standard of care. One of these technological leaps is the smart healthcare facility or smart hospital.

Smart spaces are facilities where emerging technologies are integrated to create a mechanized, automated, user-friendly facility that is easier for both workers and visitors to navigate. These technologies include data analytics, machine learning, robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, the internet of things, and other information communication technologies. Smart spaces can be anything from individual homes to entire cities and may include schools, airports, movie theaters, and definitely medical facilities. As these facilities emerge, we can consider how smart hospitals can be built to integrate lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19.

One danger the pandemic laid bare is the vulnerability of healthcare professionals to the very illnesses they’re trying to combat. This pitfall is nothing new to the medical profession — patients sometimes get doctors sick. But in times of a pandemic, every doctor, nurse, or administrator who catches the illness isn’t just another patient, but one less person available to try and stem the tide of disease.

Using apps, augmented reality, and cloud technology, we must build our smart hospitals to minimize contact between patients and healthcare providers in case of emergency. Telehealth services can be upgraded to be more comprehensive and integrated with biometric wearables worn by patients to provide doctors with much of the information they’d need when conducting online appointments. Robotic gurneys and wheelchairs can transport patients between rooms; robots can bring food, paperwork, and even medication. Remote-controlled devices are already helping doctors perform surgery, so sensitive procedures like injections and intubation can be completed without risking the health of any medical personnel. While potentially isolating for patients and not to be used in all cases, in times of emergency, this impersonal system will keep our medical professionals free to assist the inflated number of people at risk from the disease.

Inefficiency is another major hurdle to overcome if we mean to confront future world health emergencies. Everyone remembers the miles-long lines for COVID-19 testing and the counting of precious hospital beds and respirators as infections rose. While our hospitals and medical facilities do well enough under normal circumstances, the massive influx of patients during a pandemic can stretch logistics and even physical space to their breaking point.

Thankfully, the smart hospitals of the future can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to streamline the distribution of resources such as medicine, time, and space. Automated triage can filter patients out of waiting rooms and even diagnose via telehealth to keep people from even coming to hospitals. Patient health conditions can be automatically compared to determine best and most effective use of limited resources like respirators and medication. By quickly and efficiently sorting patients and determining their needs, smart hospitals can move cases through the system much faster, especially considering the level of automation provided by online forms — hospital trips with no paperwork on its own is an enormous boon to medical management.

Smart hospitals can also integrate virtual queuing to prevent crowding and reduce the risk of contagious individuals spreading disease. By signing up for a virtual queue, patients can receive updates on when their appointment will be and arrive at the medical facility just in time, spending the extra time resting at home and free from worries about further contamination. Such a system could also reduce lines for testing and vaccination, preventing traffic jams and long waits.

COVID-19 has shown us many ways in which our medical facilities could more effectively brace for future pandemics and world health emergencies. As technology advances in directions we both can and cannot predict, we should integrate every step forward into the changing face of smart hospitals to make safer and more effective spaces where we provide care. The hospitals of tomorrow will be fully automated, even better sterilized, and more able to handle a large influx of patients. So long as we embrace new ideas, we will be prepared for the worst.