The Distributed Hospital On The Horizon

Posted on February 24, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

If you’re reading this blog, you already know that distributed, connected devices and networks are the future of healthcare.  Connected monitoring devices are growing more mature by the day, network architectures are becoming amazingly fluid, and with the growth of the IoT, we’re adding huge numbers of smart devices to an already-diverse array of endpoints.  While we may not know what all of this will look when it’s fully mature, we’ve already made amazing progress in connecting care.

But how will these trends play out? One nice look at where all this is headed comes from Jeroen Tas, chief innovation and strategy officer at Philips. In a recent article, Tas describes a world in which even major brick-and-mortar players like hospitals go almost completely virtual.  Certainly, there are other takes out there on this subject, but I really like how Tas explains things.

He starts with the assertion that the hospital of the future “is not a physical location with waiting rooms, beds and labs.” Instead, a hospital will become an abstract network overlay connecting nodes. It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a concept. For an example, Tas points to the Mercy Virtual Care Center, a $54 million “hospital without beds” dedicated to telehealth and connected care.  The Center, which has over 300 employees, cares for patients at home and in beds across 38 hospitals in seven states.

While the virtual hospital may not rely on a single, central campus, physical care locations will still matter – they’ll just be distributed differently. According to Tas, the connected health network will work best if care is provided as needed through retail-type outlets near where people live, specialist hubs, inpatient facilities and outpatient clinics. Yes, of course, we already have all of these things in place, but in the new connected world, they’ll all be on a single network.

Ultimately, even if brick-and-mortar hospitals never disappear, virtual care should make it possible to cut down dramatically on hospital admissions, he suggests.  For example, Tas notes that Philips partner Banner Health has slashed hospital admissions almost 50% by using telehealth and advanced analytics for patients with multiple chronic conditions. (We’ve also reported on a related pilot by Partners HealthCare Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the “Home Hospital,” which sends patients home with remote monitoring devices as an alternative to admissions.)

Of course, the broad connected care outline Tas offers can only take us so far. It’s all well and good to have a vision, but there are still some major problems we’ll have to solve before connected care becomes practical as a backbone for healthcare delivery.

After all, to cite one major challenge, community-wide connected health won’t be very practical until interoperable data sharing becomes easier – and we really don’t know when that will happen. Also, until big data analytics tools are widely accessible (rather than the province of the biggest, best-funded institutions) it will be hard for providers to manage the data generated by millions of virtual care endpoints.

Still, if Tas’s piece is any indication, consensus is building on what next-gen care networks can and should be, and there’s certainly plenty of ways to lay the groundwork for the future. Even small-scale, preliminary connected health efforts seem to be fostering meaningful changes in how care is delivered. And there’s little doubt that over time, connected health will turn many brick-and-mortar care models on their heads, becoming a large – or even dominant – part of care delivery.

Getting there may be tricky, but if providers keep working at connected care, it should offer an immense payoff.