The digital hospital of tomorrow: Beyond the building

By Jenny Lewis, Pui-Sang Wu

The backlog of building maintenance for the UK's NHS Trusts has soared to £10.2 billion. In response, the UK Government has made a resolute commitment of up to £18.5 billion in capital funding for the construction of 40 new hospitals.

The ambitious undertaking, named the New Hospital Programme (NHP), is more than a construction programme. Hospitals have looked very similar since the birth of the NHS in 1948. Yet the advent of technology in recent years has led to a swiftly transforming healthcare landscape marked by the rise of personalised medicine, enhanced focus on integrated care, and the growth of virtual services. The NHP offers the NHS an unparalleled opportunity to develop hospitals that are fit for the future – and look very different from the hospitals of today.

The reality, however, is that many NHP hospitals could improve how they seize this transformative opportunity. Increasingly, the direction of healthcare delivery is shifting significantly towards delivering care in the comfort of the patient’s own home or community. So, we should be thinking differently about the type of care we deliver in hospitals. The NHP requires all participating schemes to have a digital component, but most Trusts view this as an ‘add-on’, and not a core part of their schemes.

Some NHP schemes are progressive in how they think about digital, tying it in with their organisational digital strategy, developing employee and patient use cases, and detailing the benefits and costs of the digital solutions they are looking to implement. However, this is not universal across all NHP schemes, and guidance and expectations can be improved.

Through reimagining their services, Trusts have an opportunity to realign to the communities they serve, reconsider the methods they employ, and empower those committed to championing change. But to truly optimise and see the possibility afforded by the NHP, Trusts need to adopt a mindset of innovation and transformation.

We suggest looking further into the future. Just 20 years ago, smartphones were barely in existence, tablets hadn’t been invented, and email was still a new concept. So how might we innovate 20 years from now?

A ‘virtual first’ world

Outside of healthcare, we’re already on a journey towards a ‘virtual first’ world. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated our ability to stay connected at a distance. Less travel is good for the environment, it allows more time with loved ones, and we can connect with others with ease. From our research, 96 percent believe patients will be so focused on preventative care and early intervention by 2030 that many hospital visits will be unnecessary. It seems it won’t be long before ‘going to see a doctor’ will happen only in exceptional cases. And most care will be delivered from home. What does this mean for hospitals? Well, they’ll see far fewer physical patients. Hospitals will be places you visit when you require specialist acute care. At the same time, our access to hospital-led care will likely increase. The efficiency of virtual care allows more patients to receive more specialist advice, albeit at a distance.

Emerging technologies

Inside homes, we increasingly see smart meters, smart security, apps that control heating and lighting, and integrated sound systems. This is happening in hospitals too. There are robots that deliver drugs to patient beds, smart lighting systems, and beds that automatically sense if there is a patient in them and can assist with monitoring.

It’s challenging to predict how emerging and new technologies will impact hospitals of the future, but it certainly won’t be like anything we’re familiar with today. Automation of processes will be extensive. And high-quality connectivity will be vital within the building's fabric (cabling, sensors) and beyond (networks, devices, hosting). The speed of technological improvement isn’t slowing down. So, adaptability is key.

A world where integrated care has become the norm

Achieving more personalised care hinges on collaborative efforts across organisations and specialised teams. Hospitals can no longer operate in isolation. The workforce must be empowered to work across boundaries, both organisational and geographical, armed with the skills and confidence to do so.

Integrated care relies on data, processes, and even employees to flow seamlessly through the system. The hospital of the future will need to have systems that are fully interoperable with up- and downstream organisations. Shared care records will likely be a thing of the past. A care record will be shared as standard, and information used to direct patients towards the most appropriate services.

Digitising a hospital is transforming a hospital

We don’t talk about ‘digitising’ our society. It just happened. And it has transformed our day-to-day lives. The same will be true for healthcare. Using technology to deliver services better, faster, and at a lower cost is inevitable. The difficult part is knowing exactly what will change and when it will happen.

Regardless, patients and NHS staff will be critical to the digital transformation. Redesigning clinical pathways separately from the people involved in them is understood to be a path to failure. We need patients involved in this digital future, shaping it, and defining the benefits technology can deliver. Most current virtual ward programmes are targeted at older patients, for example, those on frailty pathways who are often considered digitally immature. But analysis has found they’re more open to using virtual wards under the right conditions. For many patients, to be at home is an attractive pull, and often outweighs concerns around using new technology. At present, the main blocker to virtual ward acceleration is staff who are, reasonably, concerned about clinical risk. Successful programmes empower both groups to work together on defining a solution.

The future hospital will not be a static entity, it will continually evolve in response to shifting health and care needs, as well as evolving technologies and digital advancements. Flexibility, agility, and adaptability need to be woven into both the hospital's design and operational model.

We can’t know exactly what the future hospital will look like, but we can be sure it will be very different to today. The NHP provides us with an opportunity to accelerate change and design the NHS of tomorrow.

About the authors

Jenny Lewis PA healthcare expert
Pui-Sang Wu PA digital healthcare expert

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