The pandemic put hospitals through the ultimate stress test. By forcing them to adapt to waves of COVID-19 patients, changing treatment protocols, faltering supply chains and a massive vaccine rollout, to name just a few of the challenges of the past year, the outbreak drove home the importance of advanced technology. The hospitals that best weathered the crisis were by and large the ones that were already open to integrating new technologies and taking advantage of data-driven opportunities as they become available.

This lesson may turn out to be one of the most profound and lasting effects of the pandemic. Hospitals around the world now have a renewed sense of urgency to provide effective telehealth services, use real-time data to quickly and efficiently allocate staff and other resources where most needed and monitor the flow of patients along care pathways during peak demand periods.

In this respect, the pandemic has accelerated a trend that has been years in the making. Information technology and other tools that make hospitals “smarter” have already become a big differentiator in most health care markets. It’s no wonder that the market for smart-hospital technology is expected to reach $35 billion in 2021 and balloon to $83 billion by 2026. Fueling this new businesses is a growing and aging population, rising expectations on the part of patients for access to high-quality care and improved customer experiences and increasing
pressure to contain skyrocketing health care costs. Technology is not only the best way for hospitals to achieve these goals, it may be the only way.

At the top of the list of technologies that hospitals need is telehealth. The ability to provide services, monitor patients and communicate with them remotely proved invaluable during the pandemic. Telehealth can benefit hospitals and patients in other ways. Helping patients while they’re in their homes reduces costs, catches more problems faster, reduces infection and makes health care more comfortable and convenient. And shifting rehabilitation to the home means that patients can be released from the hospital sooner, notes Dr. Eyal Zimlichman, Chief Innovation Officer at Sheba Medical Center in Israel. Those capabilities will enable hospitals to shrink their costly physical facilities even while improving and expanding care.

Remote monitoring is becoming important for in-patient care as well. By giving patients wearable devices, clinicians can keep a closer eye on them as they walk around the rooms and hallways. Patients can take some wearables out of the hospital and into their homes, workplaces and the great outdoors. The data collected from these devices provide early warnings of impending problems, which doctors can often deal with remotely with ad- vice and prescriptions rather than unnecessary hospitalizations.

Machine-learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) are starting to open up entirely new horizons in care. Clinicians can’t spend their days watching a stream of patient data, nor can they drop everything to focus on every blip and hiccup turning up in the many data streams from a large patient population. But a machine-learning algorithm can do all that for them, filtering out noise and false alarms, while funneling useful summaries and critical alerts to the appropriate clinicians. Machine learning will soon play a central role in diagnosis and clinical decision-making. One area where AI is already having impact is in image screening. For instance, Charité Universitätsmedizin, a hospital in Berlin, is providing images and diagnoses to developers of AI software to train and validate their systems. Surgery is also benefiting from machine-learning and other advanced technologies. Some smart hospitals are already deploying advanced imaging techniques to prepare pre-surgery “digital clones” of patients—that is, virtual 3D-images that allow surgeons to examine a patient’s anatomy from all angles, which helps in planning the best surgical approach and anticipate abnormalities.

Such pre-surgical patient simulations will be standard in operating rooms at smart hospitals within 10 years, predicts Luc Soler, a professor at the University Hospital of Strasbourg, and president of Visible Patient, which is developing modeling technology. Over time, these capabilities will be combined with robotic surgery, which has many advantages over conventional surgery, says Dr. Jacques Marescaux, president of the Research Institute Against Digestive Cancer in Strasbourg, France. Robotic surgery, he says, entails “lower risk of complications, ensures better patient safety and lower expenses due to readmissions.” Some of the biggest technology-driven improvements in patient care will come from providing hospital administrators and clinical leaders with insights mined from vast, constantly expanding collections of patient data. For example, Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm is analyzing data in near real time to make adjustments to patient care and to determine the best use of imaging and other advanced tools.

These advances, of course, depend fundamentally on having state-of-the-art electronic health records (EHRs). Smart hospitals are tying more and more of their functions and decisions into the data being mined from their EHRs, using the results to train clinicians and fine-tune care. “The basis for high quality is collected data,” says Dr. Alan Forster, chief innovation officer of Ottawa Hospital in Canada. “This data can help to make better management decisions.” In the end, investments in smart-hospital technology will be evaluated on whether they improve outcomes for patients, with less time in the hospital and at lower cost. “Innovative treatments must bring an increased benefit, says Dr. Gregory Katz of the University of Paris School of Medicine. “By comparing outcomes across hospitals, it is possible to ensure that every patient in every
hospital receives good quality health care.”

To bring you up to speed on this paradigm shift in health care delivery, Newsweek partnered with data firm Statista to develop a list of 250 hospitals that best avail themselves of the most advanced technologies. They lead in their use of AI, robotic surgery, digital imaging, telemedicine, smart buildings, information technology infrastructure and EHRs. The hospitals on this list are the ones to watch.

Newsweek: 1o June 2021

David H. Freedman