April 19, 2007

Shifting health care needs bring technology to the fore

  • Cutting waste and improving care spurs hospitals to make high-tech improvements


    The health care industry today is facing monumental challenges from coping with staff shortages to appeasing savvy health care consumers.

    The need for innovative tools to deal with the changes is at an all-time high. Studies conducted by health care think tanks have shown that health care owners will rely heavily on technology to bridge gaps between availability, access and the drive to improve operational efficiencies and costs.

    Shrinking resources

    Health care spending is expected to consume 21 percent of the gross domestic product in the U.S. by the year 2020, with more of this cost shifting onto the consumer. This has brought about a demand by consumers to have options in health care, and high expectations for service and quality.

    Image courtesy of NBBJ
    Harborview Medical Center’s Inpatient Expansion Building will have a wireless infrastructure that supports data, radio and voice communications.

    Juxtaposed to this demand is an impending shortage of resources to deliver those expectations to consumers.

    An April 2006 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of up to 200,000 physicians by the year 2020. Resource shortages combined with rising consumer expectations brings about the necessity for more streamlined procedures and processes by which medical care is delivered.

    Tools of change

    A climate of change and innovation has ensued to meet the challenges. New technologies and processes have sprung up as a means to improve treatment and patient outcomes. Many hospitals both locally and nationally are embracing Toyota’s “lean” concepts to improve operational efficiencies, make better use of resources, cut waste and improve quality.

    The opportunities for technology to play hand-in-hand with these types of strategies provide several scenarios:

    • Wireless and mobile technology allows caregivers to spend more quality time with the patient, enhancing the experience for the patient.

    • The ability to track assets and people through developing technologies such as radio frequency identification provides the opportunity to reduce equipment costs and improve the flow of people and assets through the health care organization.

    • Creating interoperable networks accelerates integration, standardization and knowledge transfer across administrative and clinical environments.

    • Providing quality and safety standardization ensures measurable and enforced clinical standards that improve quality of care and gain consumer trust.

    • E-Health provides an increase in 24/7 access for the health care consumer. Registering from home and e-mailing a physician is a welcome advancement in medicine.

    • A ubiquitous wireless infrastructure allows remote monitoring of patients.

    Costly infrastructure

    Health care organizations must be judicious in how they adopt technology. Technologies employed must solve a business problem and must show a clear business case that will improve the bottom line.

    Technology does not come cheap. The first step in introducing technology into a hospital design is to step back and plan how it will be used as a tool to deliver health care.

    Even with the federal mandate that all hospitals use electronic health records by the year 2014, less than 17 percent of hospitals in the nation have complied, and less than 13 percent are using computer physician order entry. The reason? The cost of the required infrastructure.

    Another factor to consider when designing a hospital is “convergence.”

    Convergent technologies merge traditional standalone data and communications systems on to one infrastructure, such as in voice-over-IP systems. Another example of convergence is in the field of medical equipment technology, where equipment is becoming smarter, using IP-based protocols that allow information from the equipment to be shared on a common platform directly with the patient’s health database and other systems. It also allows equipment to be better managed for repair and asset tracking.

    Continued advances in digital imaging used in interventional procedures are part of the digital revolution in medical equipment, and are creating a demand for a more robust technology infrastructure.

    Getting it right

    Technology available to health care organizations changes continuously, but what is more important in planning a hospital is to get the infrastructure right going in, as it is costly to change it later. Good planning and visioning are key.

    Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center offers a good example of a well-planned facility. Its Inpatient Expansion Building project is incorporating technology that will ensure the facility’s ability to serve a growing regional population and its diverse needs for health care.

    Elements of this facility’s technology will include:

    • Well-planned and dispersed cable drops to accommodate field devices and smart medical equipment.

    • Robust fiber backbone to support digital imaging.

    • Well-planned IT closets to meet convergence of voice and data and growing IT demands.

    • Wireless infrastructure to accommodate wireless convergence — data, radio and voice.

    Technology is helping the health care industry meet the challenges of the new world of health care. It has changed the paradigm of how we design hospitals, helping to revolutionize how health care is delivered and opening new avenues to enable providers to meet growing needs and demands of health care consumers.

    Tom Leonidas Jr., P.E., is managing partner at Sparling, a Seattle-based electrical and technology consulting firm that specializes in health care planning and design.

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