Industry Voices—How tech will put hospitals out of business

Internet 2.0, smart tech, big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence—these are all the building blocks of our digital future.

Someday soon, cars will drive by themselves, refrigerators will inform you when you need more milk (and order it for you) and a plethora of connected devices will collect data that will make them work more efficiently and effectively for us.

This digital revolution will touch everything—including the hospital.

Smart tech has already revolutionized medical care: Robots perform surgery, handheld devices collect data from sensors attached to patients and upload them to patient record databases and hospitals use location tech to quickly find staff, supplies and more. But the application of smart tech is still at its beginning stage.

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This is not home care, experts who see this trend forming emphasize. Instead, it's home-based hospital standard care with access to all the advanced equipment and expert caregivers that patients would get in the hospital itself.

Advanced communications tech, internet of things devices, the ability of physicians or nurses to remotely monitor every aspect of a patient's condition—all those are creating conditions that will enable patients to rest, recuperate and recover in familiar surroundings with access to family and friends. The "next big thing" in hospital care, many experts believe, will be providing care not at the hospital, but at home.

The hospital as we know it—a medical center crammed full of patients, beds, equipment, medical staff and service workers, and much more—is an expense society can't really afford anymore.

Hospitals, as they exist today, are about a century old, and in that time have turned into the focal point of medical care. If you're sick, you go to the doctor, who prescribes a plan to treat the condition. If that doesn't work, the doctor may send you to a hospital for tests or treatment—and if you're sick enough, you're treated in the hospital, with drugs, surgery or whatever else your prognosis requires.

That initial treatment, or series of treatments, is usually followed by a recovery period, which can be lengthy. Chronically ill patients may find themselves in the hospital for months at a time, while medical staff try to come up with new ways of treating them. Most of the day patients are left to their own devices, with nurses or LPNs coming around to their vital signs—all of which, of course, are measured using digital tools.

Meanwhile, costs climb, insurance companies pay out, patients are frustrated or depressed at being institutionalized—and are at risk of contracting a hospital-acquired infection—and another individual who needs treatment may not be able to get it, because the hospital is already likely to be running at full capacity.

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If, indeed, much of a patient's time is spent in recovery or convalescence—and the data are being digitally read and recorded anyway—why not use the communications technology at our disposal to set up a temporary “mini-hospital” at a patient's home? This is the next leap in the burgeoning telemedicine movement: The physical hospital can focus on intensive care and surgical operations, while other functions will be replaced by advanced home care with medical staff in constant touch remotely.

In the event of a medical emergency, staff will be alerted immediately—and an ambulance, itself a mini-hospital on wheels, will be dispatched with qualified staff aboard to conduct the necessary actions to stabilize the patient. If need be, it will bring them back to the physical hospital for further treatment.

And the data hospitals will have on their virtual patients will enable medical staff to intervene even before that emergency. Big data, crunched and processed, combined with advanced machine learning and AI, is already being used to predict patient events. Patients will benefit not just from analysis of their own data, but from the analysis of the many other patients who are being treated for the same or similar conditions, as analytics systems parse the huge body of data and examine treatment patterns and outcomes, determining which patterns are likely to work best in each specific case.

Indeed, this will revolutionize hospital care as we know it within the coming decade. Other industries—retail, banking, finance and others—have long used digital tools to enable clients and businesses to collaborate and connect, anytime and anywhere. Those tools are now available to the medical industry—and given the constantly ballooning costs of care, the hospital is a perfect candidate for its own digital revolution.

Eyal Zimlichman MD, MSc, Deputy Director, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Innovation Officer at Sheba Medical Center.