IoT devices for non-critical support in hospitals

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This case study will address:

  • Low cost entry to IoT
  • Exploitation of legacy data, software, hardware, facilities, skills or knowledge
  • Bequeathing a rich legacy of new or improved data sources, technology, infrastructure, facilities, practices, skills or partnerships

This Pitch-In-supported project aimed to address challenges around developing and optimising health information technologies for hospitals. 

Various technologies are widely used in hospitals for storing, accessing and sharing health care information. The project’s main goal revolved around whether the solutions already used in hospitals could be adapted using IoT to help healthcare professionals in non-life-critical situations.

The objective was to deliver digitalised, add-on solutions that would not disrupt day-to-day operations. Instead, the aim was to find where IoT could provide a low-cost and effective ‘quick fix’ by integrating with existing solutions, to offer a seamless way to support the hospital and enhance overall productivity and performance. For example, could IoT be used to measure how often a piece of equipment is used and predict accurately when it might need servicing or changing?

This Pitch-In project was established when COVID-19 was putting significant pressure on hospitals, including facilities and equipment, meaning that the time was ripe for new IoT technologies to take the strain. 

The project was led by a team from the Distributed Information and Automation  Laboratory (DIAL) at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge, with strategic inputs from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. A team of researchers were tasked with investigations and development of the solution. They worked alongside undergraduate students who were responsible for conducting on-site interviews with various stakeholders at the hospital to define low cost digital solutions which could help healthcare support staff. 

What were the barriers or problems addressed? 

  • Where technology plays a role in supporting healthcare, for example to evaluate patient safety and hospital performance, this generally involves using low-cost, off-the-shelf solutions. Often hospitals don’t realise how these can be adapted easily and used as a solution to address challenges beyond the original application.
  • Hospitals often don’t realise what IoT technologies are available and where they do, they think that they will be cost-prohibitive in terms of deployment and maintenance.
  • Hospitals are also concerned that any new technologies will require staff training, representing another pull on resources.  

What did you do?

Pitch-In’s support enabled three main activities:

  1. identifying the most suitable IoT-based digital solutions on the market to support healthcare professionals in non-life-critical situations.
  2. developing a low-cost IoT prototype that monitored the use of healthcare equipment.
  3. contributing to the development of a research proposal to national funding bodies such as Innovate UK, to enable more hospitals to adopt and benefit from existing manufacturers’ innovative IoT solutions and the systems already on the market.

The requirements of various stakeholders in a hospital environment were identified through multiple, in-person interviews to identify what it would take to ensure buy-in at each stage.

A mapping exercise was carried out to identify what solutions already existed, what could be adapted and where there were synergies between the two. This made it possible to develop specific IoT-based solutions for non- critical hospital support. 

A prototype was implemented to demonstrate how IoT sensors could be used to see how much a medical device was being used and to identify when it might need servicing or replacing. This could be used to monitor usage of a whole range of equipment, for example, thermometers that could report temperature remotely and alert people when it had reached a certain range. The aim was to help hospitals identify how they could efficiently repurpose the low-cost technologies they had already invested in.

What were the results?

  • The project demonstrated how IoT-based digital solutions could be easily re-engineered to support non-critical activities in hospitals.
  • The adoption of equipment and monitoring solutions meant that non-critical hospital infrastructure could be automatically monitored, its use assessed and the equipment serviced in a timely way. 
  • Effective management of equipment could potentially result in the increased availability of critical hospital equipment. This could be a crucial advantage in the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting strain on hospital resources. 

Lessons learnt

  • Knowledge Exchange: Students carrying out interviews with healthcare professionals at Addenbrooke’s Hospital learnt about a typical healthcare setting. Practitioners learnt how IoT devices they didn’t know about previously could enhance their existing work and processes. They also learnt more about the benefits of collaborating with different departments.
  • Connecting capabilities: Healthcare professionals at Addenbrooke’s hospital shared with researchers and students at the Institute from Manufacturing (IfM) the challenges they face in hospital when delivering non-critical healthcare support. In this way the IfM team were able to identify which particular challenges would benefit from a technical/ digital solution, using IoT, which could be adapted from those developed for the manufacturing domain. Researchers bought their tech and manufacturing expertise in healthcare.
  • By linking equipment up, IoT solutions can talk to each other, whereas other technologies can’t. The creation of a prototype  offered the opportunity to demonstrate this benefit to hospital stakeholders.
  • Constraints due to COVID-19 limited access to laboratory facilities and the hospital for trials with an impact on proof of concepts. When the hospital opens up in the future, there will hopefully be an opportunity for the team to deploy the demonstrators in a hospital. This will help to measure the practical impact of the approach, as well as enabling the assessment of several technical aspects. These include the integration with existing systems, the user experience and the solution’s robustness compared to hospital working norms. 
  • Future access to more hospitals and similar medical facilities will help to identify the crossover between manufacturers of IoT-based systems and healthcare providers. 

What’s next?

Support from Pitch-In for this project has led to the development of a lateral flow test app. This enables someone to scan the result displayed on their lateral flow device, upload their interpretation of the result and send both to a secure site. The app can also interpret the results, ensuring a more accurate interpretation than the current process on the NHS website, which is solely reliant on a user interpreting their own results.

Following the initial project, Pitch-In funding also enabled a number of student projects in Addenbrooke’s hospital.  Students explored other low-cost manufacturing solutions that could be adapted for the healthcare environment. These included stock monitoring on wards so that they could be restocked efficiently and temperature monitoring in fridges and stock rooms to prevent stock wastage.

The initial Pitch-In project will also feed into a new grant proposal for a bigger project looking at how Addenbrooke’s and other hospitals can digitalise their processes better.

Anandarup Mikherjee, Research Associate, DIAL, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge said:

“This project demonstrated the ease and robustness with which IoT technologies in the manufacturing industries can be repurposed for hospital environments. We are looking forward to identifying further crossover areas between the two seemingly unrelated domains of manufacturing and healthcare.” 

Contact: If you are a hospital or a manufacturer interested in collaborating on a future IoT-related project for hospitals, please email: contact@digitalshoestring.net.

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