It is news to no one that the healthcare industry has faced significant challenges this year. The global COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on resources at hospitals and other healthcare facilities throughout the world, many of which lacked the technology or resources to effectively care for patients while restricting the spread of the disease.
As a result, there has been a rush to embrace new technologies, such as improved patient monitoring devices, access control stations and touchless entry solutions that can help keep patients, families and healthcare professionals as safe as possible amid this difficult situation.
It is important to look ahead at what additional difficulties 2021 may bring for hospitals. It is critical to understand how new technologies are being used within the healthcare industry and their potential long-term uses. As priorities shift and processes change, let’s examine the challenges the healthcare industry is likely to face as we move into next year, as well as how we can expect new and emerging technologies to be used to manage those challenges.
Hospitals Experiencing Staffing Shortages
By now, most people are familiar with the most pressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as hospital overcrowding and new processes for in-person visits. But one issue that has flown largely under the radar is the fact that hospitals are beginning to see a reduction in staff. Despite the fact that hospitals are taking every precaution possible to keep them safe, doctors, nurses and other staff members regularly come into close contact with sick individuals as part of their jobs, and many have unfortunately become sick as a result. Furthermore, most people are—understandably—not eager to work in hospitals right now, which has made it extremely difficult for healthcare facilities to replace sick or departing staff.
A reduction in the number of doctors and nurses poses obvious problems for healthcare facilities, but the loss of other staff members can have a significant impact as well. Patient watching is critical—especially for patients viewed as fall risks or who are potentially a danger to themselves or others—and often involves stationing an individual inside the patient’s room to keep them under close supervision. With fewer patient watchers available and the need to socially distance individuals, this sort of individualized care has become more difficult, putting hospitals in a tricky position.
To combat this issue, hospitals are exploring remote monitoring options, with network cameras and advanced audio solutions enabling doctors and nurses to check in on patients remotely at any time. These cameras have helped to revolutionize patient watching, enabling watchers to monitor as many as four to six patients at a time, with the added benefit of not requiring them to be present in the room.
The availability of bodycam technology has provided complementary benefits, ensuring that when hospital staff do need to enter a patient room, any potential incident is caught on camera, while also providing verifiable proof that proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and other procedures are being followed. The return on investment (ROI) these technologies provide is significant, allowing hospitals to not only cope with reductions in staff, but also reduce the potential for workplace violence or further exposure to illness. At a time when hospitals are facing catastrophic reductions in the number of elective surgeries and procedures, opportunities to add ROI in this manner will continue to be critical.
Remote Monitoring Protects Patients and Staff
While it may not have been a top concern before the pandemic, hospitals today are looking for technologies that provide the ability for clinicians to interact with patients without being physically present in the room. Remote monitoring was once envisioned primarily as a security measure, but today these cameras have enabled doctors and nurses to perform virtual rounds and even check in with patients live from elsewhere in the hospital or outside of it.
This has the obvious benefit of helping doctors avoid unnecessary contact with potentially contagious patients, but it also helps protect vulnerable patients from potentially contagious doctors. The pandemic may be dominating the headlines at the moment, but it is important to remember that many hospital patients are there for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, and keeping elderly, immunocompromised, or otherwise vulnerable patients safe from potential pathogens is still a priority.
Simply put, even when donning all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), there is no way to completely guarantee that COVID-19 will not be transmitted. Cameras equipped with two-way intercoms can allow doctors and patients to interact with each other with few limitations while ensuring that both remain as protected as possible.
Better still, it can enable doctors to check in with patients at any time, whether they are able to be physically present or not. The benefits here are obvious, and it’s a trend that will only gain steam as time goes on.
Video, Audio Analytics Give Doctors Virtual Eyes and Ears
Modern cameras don’t just let outside observers monitor patients. The rise of video and audio analytics technology has given these cameras exciting new capabilities. These cameras can be trained to look for specific signs of danger, such as a patient falling or having a seizure, and automatically alert the appropriate personnel. Likewise, they can listen for sounds like cries of pain, breaking glass, or even loud or aggressive voices, likewise alerting hospital staff that a potentially dangerous situation may be unfolding.
One of the most obvious benefits that this type of analytics can supply is decreased response time. Because these cameras can be trained to raise an alert the moment a patient appears to be in distress, doctors and nurses can be notified immediately that their presence is needed.
Analytics trained to recognize raised voices or aggressive behavior can likewise help prevent violent incidents before they occur—a capability that is of particular value to the healthcare industry where workplace violence remains a major concern. In some cases, it may even be possible to prevent an incident before it occurs.
Digital fencing can also be used if a patient is a fall risk, alerting hospital staff if the patient attempts to leave a designated area and hopefully preventing a potential accident. This technology has uses that go far beyond the current pandemic and will likely continue to be adopted at a high rate.
Access Control, Touchless Entry Go Hand in Hand
Another way healthcare facilities have worked to protect patients, visitors and staff is through more effective access control technology. Modern door stations equipped with network cameras and two-way intercoms have been deployed at ingress and egress points, but also within hospitals themselves, ensuring that certain units or wards — such as infectious disease wards — can remain as isolated as possible. These door stations provide audio, video and access control technology all rolled into one, making them a great way to ensure that movement into, out of and within these facilities is as controlled as possible. There are even ways to add analytics to the mix, such as automatically locking a door if the camera detects the person attempting to enter is not wearing a mask.
Better still, these door stations can help facilitate touchless entry solutions, which have become particularly important as healthcare professionals seek to limit transmission of COVID-19 via surfaces. Instead of keypads, doors can be trained to automatically open for recognized personnel.
New solutions have even made touchless entry easy for visitors: rather than handing visitors a badge or provisional access card, they can download an app or temporary QR code that will grant them access to the areas they are authorized to visit. This has the added benefit of allowing hospitals to track the movement of visitors in the event that contact tracing becomes necessary.
It is worth nothing that while much of the conversation about access control centers around keeping people out of certain areas or otherwise restricting movement, it is useful in other ways, too. If someone arrives at a hospital in the middle of the night looking for care but is met with a locked door, having the ability to see that individual, assess their condition and let them inside is essential. In addition to keeping unauthorized people out, door stations also help ensure those in need are allowed entry.
Don’t Invest Blindly in Technology
While technology like network cameras, access control, advanced analytics and others have clear benefits—particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic—it is important to understand that not all technology is similarly valuable. Unfortunately, some technology that initially seemed promising has not proven as useful as expected, and it has left some healthcare facilities with devices that no longer suit their needs.
Thermal cameras are a good example of this. While these cameras have many great uses, some facilities attempted to use them for temperature sensing, under the mistaken impression that they would be able to detect fever in those entering. Unfortunately, these devices are only effective at detecting surface temperatures, not core temperatures, and are unable to account for environmental factors, such as a person who just exited an air-conditioned car, or who was standing in the hot sun. In places like Arizona, where the temperature outside regularly tops 110 degrees, these cameras have been particularly inaccurate.
Perhaps worst of all, we now know that those who have COVID-19 do not always exhibit signs of fever — or even any symptoms at all — making this venture a costly and ultimately useless one for many hospitals.
While hospitals look for technologies to help them run more efficiently in the face of the pandemic, it is important to research any technology before investing in it. While it is understandable that many healthcare facilities felt that they “had to do something,” the price of investing in an expensive and ineffective technology can be steep. Fortunately, as we grow in our understanding of COVID-19, these types of mistakes will likely become less frequent, and hospitals will hopefully be able to make more informed decisions in the new year.
Move Into the New Year with Confidence
Although COVID-19 vaccines are in the early stages of being delivered, the virus won’t be going away anytime soon. Healthcare facilities around the world cannot wait for a vaccine to be widely available. As we move into 2021, they must be prepared to face the challenges associated with the virus and continue to invest in the technology needed to ameliorate them.
While the cost factors associated with some of these technologies are large, the federal government has made a considerable amount of money available to healthcare facilities. Although many have assumed that the CARES Act specifically earmarked money for PPE, hand sanitizer and other small-scale needs, the money provided by the act can be used for patient technology and security technology designed to keep patients and staff safe from the virus. If hospitals need to secure COVID-19 floors or improve the safety of patient care, that money can still be invested in the technology described in this article.
With or without the use of CARES Act funding, it seems likely that we will continue to see increased adoption of security technology within the healthcare industry as we move into the new year. Technology like network cameras, access control, touchless entry and analytics have clear uses that go far beyond the current pandemic. Healthcare facilities can see the potential for network cameras to revolutionize patient care and even mitigate workplace violence, as well as the ability of touchless entry solutions to enable frictionless movement throughout their facilities.
Clinics, hospitals and even senior living facilities have a growing need for these solutions, and the COVID-19 crisis has presented many with the unique opportunity to justify the investment. Even amid the tragedy and hardship of the pandemic, this increased investment in healthcare safety and security will produce positive results for years to come.
Paul Baratta is Axis Communications’ segment development manager for healthcare. This article first appeared on SSI sister publication Campus Safety.
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