• Opinion
  • November 19, 2018
  • 6 minutes
  • 2

High demand is hurting healthcare — going digital might be the answer

Opinion: Ontario's fully-digital hospital automates clerical tasks, leaving more time for care

This opinion piece was written by Jenny Ge, a policy analyst for the government of Ontario. It was a runner up in the 2018 Apolitical Young Thought Leaders competition. For more like this, see the other winning entries.


Ontario’s publicly-funded healthcare system has been exhibiting a series of problems in recent years. Among them are surgeries cancelled at the last minute because of patient backlogs, the increasing use of “hallway medicine” as a lack of available beds means patients have to be treated on gurneys in hallways and overcrowded emergency rooms. Hospitals are consistently operating at over 100% bed capacity even in the summer “slow” season.

In an effort to alleviate pressure on the healthcare system, two decommissioned hospitals were brought back to partial use for patients. For patients without acute care needs and waiting for alternative services, they were an effective temporary solution. But the problems affecting Ontario’s healthcare system aren’t temporary in nature, and this solution can’t be a permanent fix.

An ageing population will require more medical care, as will continued treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease

These problems are not limited to Ontario — they can and do impact healthcare systems across the world. An ageing population will require more medical care, as will continued treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, both of which sit alongside the cost burden of updating ageing infrastructure and legacy technologies.

Healthcare is already the largest budgetary expenditure in Ontario, and spending on healthcare globally is projected to increase at an annual rate of 4.1% between 2017 and 2021, up from 1.3% between 2012 and 2016. But it’s not clear that spending more money will guarantee better results: although the United States spent more than other OECD countries on healthcare in 2016, it was in the lower half of the OECD’s life expectancy rankings.

Introducing the digital hospital

New and innovative solutions are needed in the healthcare sector. One example of such a solution may lie in the digital hospital model found at Humber River Hospital in Toronto.

Opened in October 2015, it was billed as North America’s first fully-digital hospital. Before entering the hospital, patients look online to find out their check-in zone. Robots are used to sort medication, automated vehicles deliver food trays and machines deliver tubes of blood samples to the laboratory.

Both patients and staff wear real-time location devices, which free staff from overhead paging systems and allows for the closest person to respond to issues. All of this is overseen by a team in the hospital’s central dispatch area who use real-time data and predictive analytics to improve quality of care while reducing costs.

It reduces the potential for mistakes through automation and system integration

The result is a hospital where 75% of back-office functions, such as pharmacy, laundry and food delivery, have been automated. Nurses spend less time on administrative tasks and have more time to spend at the patient bedside. It meant the hospital hired 700 more employees for the hospital’s 656 patient rooms.

With a cost of 15 years of planning and a $1.8 billion investment, the return on investment has not yet been reported, though Peter Bak, Humber River Hospital’s Chief Information Officer, estimated a portion of the return to be $6.5 million, based on 20 hospital beds added in 2018 without requiring additional support staff.

In addition to increased capacity to serve more patients faster, the digital hospital model reduces the potential for mistakes through automation and system integration.

The example of Humber River Hospital will not apply in all cases. Often, tight budgets are too limiting, training staff takes away time that could be spent treating patients and existing hospitals have legacy systems that stubbornly resist radical change. And yet, Humber River Hospital presents an interesting example of a possible solution for healthcare’s budget issue. It could be an answer to the question of how to do more with less using the 21st century’s new technologies. — Jenny Ge

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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