Smart cities enable next phase of healthcare transformation

For healthcare’s digital transformation shift to be successful, it’s paramount that the right implementation approach is taken

In a recent report, assessing the current state of healthcare technology implementation in the UK’s NHS, it was revealed that a third of staff are unable to do their best work due to an excess of new technology. 

What’s more, a staggering 99% of healthcare professionals expressed that they want to be free to focus on patient care but feel that the abundance of technology is taking time and energy away from their core tasks. 

The study, undertaken by Zivver and entitled Freedom to Focus, represents one of the largest independent pieces of research into secure digital communications and workplace productivity in the UK healthcare sector.

Developments in technology have the capacity to transform healthcare at a pace and scale that the industry has never seen before. But, it is imperative that digital transformation is implemented in an intuitive way, which supports – rather than alienates – teams and patients. 

So, as the world’s cities increasingly achieve ‘smart’ status, what will this mean for the next phase of healthcare technologies? 

The current pace of healthcare tech adoption

Naturally, COVID-19 forced the healthcare sector to change dramatically in a short period of time. Looking back from today’s vantage point, it’s fascinating to see how the mindset shift necessitated by the pandemic is becoming permanent. 

In fact, this shift is acting as the foundation upon which our new smart-city-enabled healthcare technologies are being built on. 

“COVID-19 created a situation where healthcare providers and public services globally were forced to rewrite the handbook on how to address access to medical care,” states Bob Zemke, Director of Business Development at Extreme Networks.

“For the first time in recent memory, there was a universal shift in patient care and services from GPs, clinics and hospitals to distributed community areas. Everywhere from pharmacies to schools and other publicly accessible buildings became extensions of local hospitals.”   

This is where smart cities, and the sophisticated interconnective infrastructure that comes with them, now stand to make a drastic impact. 

“Cities across the globe are recognising the need to place digital health at the forefront of their smart city ambitions. This will only become more pertinent as we face an ageing population, an increase of people moving into cities and, as a result, increased pressure and demand on our healthcare systems,” adds Mikael Sandberg, Executive Chairman at VX Fiber. 

But, for that to be achievable, the necessary connectivity infrastructure must first exist. This will require extensive upgrades to achieve the speeds that are required by such sophisticated technologies. 

“Smart technologies require the ability to generate and exchange real-time data. And the sheer volume of that data transfer between these new technologies (to give a horizontal view of citizens' services) requires high-capacity, fixed-line infrastructure – a robust, full-fibre network,” Sandberg expands.

“By working hand-in-hand, fibre operators and local governments will be able to bring better connectivity to all and drive a smarter future. In addition, having local governments involved from the outset ensures that decisions about building and applying the technology are bespoke to the area’s local needs – and for the residents who live there.” 

Beyond simply enabling professionals to diagnose and treat patients faster, these technologies are paving the way for a complete reinvention in healthcare systems and the approaches that they are built upon. 

“Smart cities have the potential to transform how our health systems are designed by supporting the rise of health communities, where public health is integrated into urban design to proactively address factors affecting the public’s health, instead of reactively treating illnesses and injuries,” Zemke outlines. 

“The potential of cutting-edge technologies to support preventative, predictive and personalised care is enormous, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of what could be possible in the future,” Sandberg stresses. 

The patient’s perspective – how is an individual’s healthcare experience set to change? 

The pandemic facilitated a rapid increase in telehealth services – a shift that won’t be reversed anytime soon. And, as a direct result of this change, the quality of virtual and in-home care is advancing just as dramatically. 

“The amount of personalised, in-home healthcare services will continue to increase as patients are able to use more applications and medical devices at home, including outpatient monitoring devices,” Zemke adds. 

“Network infrastructures will increasingly bring all these different elements together as part of a connected, real-time healthcare system that ensures scalability, efficiency and accuracy.” 

By improving efficiency through IoT technology, smart city infrastructure will help the healthcare sector to evolve its services in a way that is harmonious, scalable and secure. 

“We’re already seeing the benefits in the healthcare sector,” Sandberg asserts. “Through wearable IoT devices and sensors, workers are now able to communicate with their patients remotely, offering a higher level of 'hands-off' care than they have been previously able.”

A key example of this lies in social housing, for which many countries (including the UK) are currently trialling the latest IoT-enabled technologies. 

“In the event that a patient hasn't followed their normal routine, these sensors can alert the caregiver that something is wrong. It makes monitoring patients easier for health workers, caretakers and loved ones, while allowing care recipients to remain at home,” Sandberg explains. 

What’s more, by automating the collection and analysis of data, IoT will also significantly reduce administrative and operational costs. In doing so, patient wait times are reduced, the highest risk patients are consistently prioritised, and healthcare providers have more time to focus on tasks within their skillset.  

“This will enhance the quality of care healthcare providers are able to deliver and create a better patient experience,” Zemke adds. 

“For example, sensor data can provide insights into the location and availability of healthcare devices, while analytics from WiFi access points can help determine things like the busiest times in waiting rooms when an in-person visit is necessary. These insights can all be used to support patient care, cut wait times, and ensure more effective asset utilisation.”

Then, in the very near future, the way that customer data is stored and used can undergo a complete revolution.

“Electronic healthcare record (EHR) systems will also evolve. This may be looking some way into the future, but, one day, these systems will leverage big data and predictive modelling to create personalised healthcare plans that will revolutionise interactions with doctors,” says Zemke. 

The more data that these systems are able to accumulate, the easier and more accurately they can predict health conditions, thereby driving more proactive, cost-effective and impactful treatments. 

“Ultimately, the more dominant smart health technology becomes, the more it becomes clear how it reflects the concept of smart cities in general: that is, utilising information and communications to provide seamless end-to-end experiences and serve the purpose of improving the quality of life,” Sandberg states. 

The need for a sustainable, incremental approach to digital transformation

As is so often the case with technologies that uproot an industry, success rests in attaining a careful balancing act. 

Although the benefits to be gained by smart city healthcare are exceptional, they cannot be unlocked overnight. Otherwise, companies run the risk of alienating, frustrating or downright alarming those who they most need on side.  

“IT leaders face a real quandary in trying to capitalise on the opportunities that digital technologies bring, but also in limiting the disruption and stress that accompanies huge changes to how staff work when patient demand and staffing levels are so critical,” says Liam Cahill, an advisor to national bodies and frontline providers in healthcare. 

It’s clear that seamlessness and strong communication are core elements of a successful digital transformation. As the world works toward more sophisticated healthcare solutions, it is critical that professionals working in the industry are supported throughout. 

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