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How Technology Is Being Used to Combat Crowding in Hospitals

Ian Lindsay-Watson, Chief Operating Officer at SmartCrowding, explains how technology is playing an essential role in preventing hospitals from reaching over-capacity

Research reveals that when capacity levels pass 92.5%, the mortality rate in hospitals can increase exponentially, accounting for one-in-seven deaths in the critically ill. Even before the pandemic took hold, many countries observed an increase in emergency department admissions. This stress on the healthcare system, coupled with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 has already led to demand for beds reaching or exceeding a breaking point in some hospitals.

In the UK, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer recently reported that admissions met levels similar to where they were earlier in the year. He warned that intensive care units in the UK may become full within a matter of weeks. This surge in patient numbers highlights the need for innovative technologies and data modelling that can take the pressure off staff, keep numbers well below capacity levels, and ultimately protect against avoidable mortalities. Luckily these technologies exist, with the most commonly used systems including telehealth systems, patient flow systems, telecare systems and telephone triages.

Telehealth systems are remote healthcare services that allow a patient to share data with a medical professional. For example, a diabetes patient can take their blood sugar at home and share the reading electronically with a healthcare team. That helps the healthcare team identify issues early, or even prevent larger problems, which removes the need for hospital admissions and frees up critical care beds. With cases of COVID-19 rising around the world, telehealth systems can be especially beneficial as they can eliminate the need for routine visits and reduce the risk of potential infection from contact at healthcare facilities. This is exactly why National Health Service trusts in the UK, such as Airedale, Mersey Care and Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber have increased their telehealth approach in response to the pandemic. Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Technology has been an incredibly powerful tool in our response to coronavirus.” He continued: “New innovations will ensure patients can benefit from the comfort of home, with the reassurance that they can be fast tracked to support from the National Health Service (NHS) should they need. NHS at Home will help keep people safe and out of hospital while providing the best possible care.”

Patient flow systems are another group of technologies at the forefront of occupancy rate management and serve as a much-needed replacement to the current, out-dated systems. Many of the UK’s national health trusts still rely on wall charts, spreadsheets, and sticky notes to assist with life-or-death situations. By introducing software solutions for patient flow, hospitals can benefit from live monitoring, tracking, decision-making tools, and much more. These types of solutions use data modelling to efficiently track patients and resources within a hospital and ultimately reduce waiting times and lower the volume of occupancy. This type of software is especially effective in in high pressure environments such as accident and emergency wards, as it can help to delegate resources and allow staff to make better-informed decisions, more rapidly. In Norway, patient flow system SmartCrowding was able to reduce waiting times, as well as the average total time spent by each patient in the Emergency Department of Stavanger University Hospital by 50% in under a year.

Telecare systems allow those with known conditions to live independently while technology observes their health. Telehealth devices can be purchased and may include a panic button, GPS tracker, or even products that can identify dangerous situations such as a fall. The devices will alert a 24-hour monitoring system that will allow healthcare professionals to take appropriate action. These products allow healthcare providers to address many issues before they become more serious and require emergency attention, thus decreasing critical care admissions. In the UK, the national health service for Gloucestershire has launched a whole new website dedicated to providing telecare information guidance for those in need and more recently, the UK’s national health service rolled out a national Covid-19 contact tracing app in order to keep infection to a minimum which in turn, prevents emergency hospital visits.

It is no secret that emergency phone lines are often under great stress and misused. Telephone triage systems aim to take pressure off staff by redirecting less-serious callers and lead them to seek the appropriate treatment, whether that’s a GP appointment or advice from a pharmacy. The most prominent example of a telephone triage scheme is the introduction of the non-emergency 111 line in the UK. More recently, walk-in healthcare centres in Liverpool and Reading, UK have adopted a new telephone triage system in response to Covid-19. This allows for more cases to be dealt with by referring a patient a GP or sending an out-of-hours doctor, for example. Dealing with more cases outside of the emergency response system, frees up ambulances, emergency department professionals, and critical care beds.

It is clear that overcrowding is a serious threat that will continue to grow unless it is addressed. The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed the lack of measures currently in place and highlighted the need for new technologies to be introduced. By harnessing innovation, we can move towards a future where hospitals work as efficiently as possible, with a decrease in waiting times, improved staff wellbeing, and a reduction in overcrowding-related deaths.