How smart hospitals mitigate shortage of healthcare staff

December 28, 2021 08:48
Healthcare staff uses the IoT-connected drug trolley by scanning a code on the patient’s wristband to verify the medication’s information and unlock the corresponding compartment on the trolley. Photo: HK Government

With an ageing population, the demand for medical services is increasing year after year, leading to a serious shortage of healthcare staff. According to the latest review of the healthcare manpower projection by the Food and Health Bureau this year, the shortage of doctors and nurses will further worsen in the long term. It is estimated that Hong Kong will be short of 1,949 doctors and 5,060 nurses in 2040 respectively.

In the past ten years, Hong Kong has tried to solve the problem of healthcare manpower shortage through diversified solutions, such as increasing local medical school admission, adjusting policy to recruit non-locally trained healthcare professionals, but improvement is minimal. In the face of this increasingly severe challenge, I am encouraged by the authority’s determination to embark on the journey of developing smart hospitals.

Through the full use of latest information technology, smart hospitals are expected to improve the quality and efficiency of medical services, from nursing care, treatment, support services, diagnosis to day-to-day management.

A hospital covers a wide range of aspects, including patients, staffing, hospital beds, medical equipment, drugs, auxiliary supplies and research. Keeping up with the ever-changing records and managing all these resources can be rather complicated. Therefore, geographic information system (GlS), an advanced technology, should be introduced for better co-ordination and analysis of these intricate needs.

Through an indoor interactive map of GIS, the management can mobilise the team, and accurately direct the labour, from patrol robots to security personnel, to designated locations. To manage various resources and equipment like an IV pump, wheelchair, and mobile X-ray machine, GIS virtual three-dimensional (3D) maps can create a digital twin together with the use of colour coding methods to visualise different resources in real-time.

The real-time indoor map system not only displays the location of resources, but also the availability, it helps the staff member with resource allocation and immediate adjustment. For example, when a visitor with limited mobility or a patient leaving the operating room needs to use a wheelchair, the map can display the location of the nearest wheelchair and the quantity, so that healthcare practitioners can make arrangements in time. And when a healthcare staff ends his shift, any equipment under his responsibility can be tracked by the incoming shift according to the map display, which improves efficiency, prevents supplies loss, and helps deploy manpower flexibly.

Another core function of GIS is the common operational picture (COP) which facilitates the coordination and division of work among departments. Through mobile application or desktop computer application, together with cloud technology, staff members can carry out real-time communication reliably and safely.

The development of smart hospitals has become a global trend. However, the compatibility and interoperability of different advanced technologies, such as the internet of things, big data, artificial intelligence, and telemedicine, is an issue. Moreover, there are numerous documents and files in the hospital, from patient medical records, staff attendance records, supplies status, to drug use registration which make file management tedious and time-consuming.

With the use of GIS, the management can achieve greater impact with less effort. The leading edge of this advanced technology is its open system which is strong in collecting, integrating and coordinating data from different sources, and linking with other information for analysis, it is a great help for decision-making.

What’s more, the authority can add data such as 3D city model, terrain and building information modeling (BIM) to the GIS platform to perform airflow analysis of the outdoor and semi-outdoor space of the hospital, so as to detect the risk of virus spread in the area. It can even predict the needs of medical services in the community to assist future hospital site selection and medical facilities configuration.

Currently, public hospitals in Hong Kong are gradually moving towards digitalisation. The Hospital Authority (HA) plans to develop 18 hospitals with accident and emergency services into smart hospitals with more technologies to ease the workload of healthcare staff. GIS not only facilitates medical resource management, promotes communication, but also analyses long term needs for medical needs. If the authority can make good use of GIS, it will definitely improve the quality of medical services and mitigate the shortage of healthcare staff.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong