Smart Healthcare: What We’ve Learned from COVID-19

Originally posted in Healthcare Business Today.

As much as we all wish it were, the pandemic is not yet over and continues to threaten the populace. Now more than ever we must take the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19 to heart in hopes of closing this chapter of world health history and moving on. If this spiky, infectious cloud has a silver lining, it’s that the lessons of COVID will do more than just help us defeat COVID, but will also refine and improve the technologies we implement in creating the “smart” healthcare facilities of the future. The healthcare system we build back in the wake of the novel coronavirus will be stronger, more efficient, and more effective, and if there ever must be another pandemic, better prepared. 

Smart technology refers to a synthesis of data-analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, augmented reality, and other Information Communication Technology to create more integrated, efficient, and automated “smart” spaces. This means smart homes, smart streets, smart cities, smart schools, smart stores, and yes, smart hospitals. By combining cutting-edge information technologies, we can create healthcare spaces that are easier for patients, practitioners, and administrators alike to use and navigate, while also being safer places to work and better places for healing. The COVID-19 pandemic, for all its tragedy, has shown us how to implement and improve the smart hospitals of the future. 

The key benefit of smart hospitals is efficiency, the need for which the pandemic laid bare in dramatic fashion. A fully integrated smart hospital is automated and arranged to care for more patients much faster than we ever thought possible. Think back to the overcrowded hospitals of the peak pandemic era and the days where we counted every precious bed and lifesaving ventilator. Remember the miles-long lines to sporting arenas commandeered into testing centers. Smart hospitals use cloud technology, machine learning, and augmented reality to guide patients seamlessly from check-in to testing to care, easily keeping the flow of patients moving and performing triage to send people home for telehealth appointments. Smart hospitals take the frustrating task of moving people through the system out of human hands and make it automated and seamless.  

Smart hospitals will also, thankfully, be automated hospitals. Robotics controlled through artificial intelligence and cloud technology will be able to assist patients through any number of treatments that previously required human contact. This minimization of contact is necessary in the case of a pandemic, where simply attending to a patient in person can cause a doctor, nurse, or hospital official to be infected and become a vector for transmitting the disease themselves. Robots could transport patients through a facility, administer ever-more-sensitive medications, and in time, even perform delicate procedures when guided by human expertise. In case of a disease outbreak, automation would make smart hospitals both more effective for patients and safer for medical professionals, who would not risk as much exposure to the very illnesses they were trying to treat. 

This increased automation and efficiency could also benefit from the adoption of virtual queuing technology. Using an app or online portal, patients could sign up for a digital queue that tells them their place in line and how soon they need to be at the hospital or medical center. This one piece of technology could almost entirely eliminate the waiting rooms where people risk infection before they’re seen. Digital queuing could also help schedule lunch or recreation times for hospitalized patients to avoid infecting each other, and drastically reduce waiting times for tests and vaccines. Integrating digital queuing with machine learning and data analytics could predict patient appointment times down to the minute, freeing patients to rest at home until they are ready to be seen.

Smart hospitals are the next logical step in streamlining and empowering our medical centers to be better prepared for the next pandemic. Some of the technologies and procedures, like digital queuing, are already available as solutions that could be implemented today. Smart hospitals will take shape one innovation at a time, each upgrade interfacing with the others as introduced, until we wake up to a world of automated, intelligent medical facilities better prepared for dangerous outbreaks and wise to the lessons of COVID.