At the heart of all smart hospital solutions is a robust digital infrastructure. In physical terms, this means installing wires – to support a dense wireless network – and sensors, which can collect data about the environment and track the location of electronic devices such as smartphones and RFID tags. Once that basic network is in place, it can be used for many things, from alerts for malfunctioning systems, to mapping people, equipment and supplies, to the digitalization of hospital processes and flows.
This can support resilience – the ability of a hospital to operate safely during a crisis – in many ways. Reliable location data could help maintain two different streams for infected and non-infected patients and associated equipment, for example, and manage stretched resources more efficiently. Advance warning of building system failure – from machine-learning analysis of sensor data – would enable maintenance teams to avoid outages. Supplementing the human workforce with robots, to clean or deliver supplies, reduces the risk of disease transmission and minimizes exposure for caregivers and patients.
“Autonomous guided vehicles can be used to transport food and medicine, so hospital staff don’t need to go into the ward,” says Thomas Chan, Executive Director of Building MEP at WSP for the China Region. He is part of the team designing a smart hospital in Hong Kong, which will use robots to both enhance infection control and solve an acute shortage of workers. They will also apply artificial intelligence to monitor MEP systems and enable predictive building maintenance. “The deep-learning machine embedded in the robots will analyse operating data to check the condition of the equipment,” he explains. “If part of the plant system seems to be in poor condition, the building management system will alert the engineering staff and help them locate the problem so it can be fixed, avoiding any interruption in services.”
At Bon Secours Mercy Health, a healthcare system with 35 hospitals across the eastern US, director of infrastructure Jonathan Hunley is creating a standard sequence of operations that will be used across all of its facilities, including a “pandemic mode” setting to turn an entire emergency department into a negative air environment. For a new hospital in Virginia, he intends to go a step further. “We are looking at taking all these different smart technologies – building automation, power, lighting, nurse call, patient logistics, security – and combining them into one system where I can monitor everything in real-time. I want to get to the point where I can monitor indoor air quality, and put different control sequences into motion if we see anything spiking.”
During COVID, the ability to modify facilities quickly and efficiently has been found to be a very important part of resilience (we discussed building flexibility in detail earlier in the series). In a hospital where spaces are highly specialized, physical changes have complex repercussions. A technological overlay, on the other hand, is far more adaptable.
In Queensland, there is a shift to replace televisions in patient rooms with a “bring your own device” policy, supported by a free high-speed wifi network. “You can do FaceTime, Netflix, GoToMeeting, Zoom, or you can open up the Queensland Health app, put your patient number in, and get access to different services or order your meals,” says Wall. This provides a better patient experience, so aiding recovery, he adds, but it also allows new services or information to be added from a central hub. Ditto digital signage – it’s much easier to change routes through a hospital by reprogramming displays and wayfinding apps than having to manually alter every sign.