The smart solutions to ageing UK healthcare infrastructure
Image credit: Marbury67/Dreamstime
How can building technology help UK hospitals save lives, while simultaneously cutting costs and achieving net zero?
In October 2020, the UK's National Health Service released its ambitious strategy [PDF] to become the world’s first 'net zero' national health service. Even amid the myriad pressures of coronavirus, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens made clear that the climate emergency is one of the most significant health issues to be tackled. In his words: “With poor environmental health contributing to major diseases, including cardiac problems, asthma and cancer, our efforts must be accelerated.”
As the largest employer in Britain, responsible for around 4 per cent of the nation's carbon emissions, it is clear that the will for a net-zero NHS is there. At the same time, with an ageing population and constant concerns over the costs of delivering high-quality care, the NHS is facing a perfect storm of challenges. What, then, is the relationship between net-zero strategies and the NHS’s other competing priorities? Is there a way healthcare leaders could deliver the triumvirate of patient health, public value and global sustainability?
Could the answer lie in setting a new standard in the UK’s ageing healthcare infrastructure through technical innovation?
With Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and other rapidly developing technologies, hospitals and healthcare facilities have the potential to be truly intelligent, able to sense the needs of the users and respond accordingly. A smart building uses the data generated by IoT-enabled equipment and that gleaned from external sources to allow performance-enhancing, energy-saving decision making. In the context of smart hospitals, the benefits of such approaches are multifaceted.
From ensuring clean air quality to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, incorporating smart systems can reduce friction and improve communications. Such technologies reduce costs while enhancing patient and staff satisfaction, patient care, and quality.
Smart IoT technologies can also enhance patient and clinician experiences; reducing queues, controlling lighting and heating, delivering automatic check-in, tracking of equipment and cleaning. Dignified patient and life care are non-negotiable, and the development of patient-centred care through strategic, smart technology integration results in a safe and enhanced healthcare experience for patients.
In the age of Covid, there is a fresh impetus on smart-building design to incorporate clear-air technology to ensure safe, ventilated spaces. Given the average person spends 90 per cent of their day indoors, indoor air exacts huge control on our general state of health.
Viruses like Covid-19 can spread much faster in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Achieving optimum ventilation levels while reducing energy use relies on measuring and controlling occupancy and internal air quality (IAQ). Balancing occupancy, sustainability and IAQ can be done through smart-building technology, reducing the risk of airborne viruses spreading. Not only that, but smart HVAC using UV can tackle disinfection. At the same time, airborne isolation rooms can use technology to subtly control air pressure to ensure correct airflow.
It is well established that creating and maintaining a standard for air quality can significantly improve comfort and productivity and overall can help set the right mood for work, learning, wellbeing and beyond. Coronavirus has prompted us all to rethink what we want and need for health and happiness in the spaces we occupy from day to day. Now is a clear opportunity to act on these impulses and make our environments future fit.
Smart technologies are at the centre of sustainability discussions across varied industries. Digitalisation, decarbonisation and renewable energy goals go hand-in-hand. Healthcare organisations cannot implement zero-carbon and renewable energy goals for their facilities without discussing the digital technology essential to achieving building and operational efficiencies.
As identified by the NHS itself, digital transformation provides ripe opportunities for net-zero through digitising its estate and investing in smart hospitals. Through the use of intelligent, real-time energy monitoring and control, including the use of artificial intelligence, the NHS suggests a 2.3 per cent reduction in carbon emissions could be achieved, alongside a net annual saving of £120m by 2034.
Implementing sustainable infrastructure benefits more than just the environment. Building decarbonisation reduces operational costs by optimising equipment and lighting strategies – the biggest consumers of energy and budget – through preventative and predictive maintenance programmes.
What’s more, increased infrastructure resilience provides hospitals and healthcare facilities with a longer lifespan, requiring fewer energy-consuming upgrades and retrofits. Next-generation building automation – intelligent, data-enabled automation and related controls – make it possible to extend automated control to every building system. Automated HVAC, lighting, security and detection can be optimised to ensure energy efficiency based on real-time data and user needs.
The case for smart hospitals is clear, but delivering on this promise can feel like a challenge for a nationwide organisation with such varied estates and varied needs. The NHS has been responsive to this challenge, with a national framework agreement for the provision of smart-building solutions using the Internet of Things.
The framework will advance plans to support the delivery of smart hospitals, enabling local authorities and wider public bodies to more readily procure smart-building technologies, providing time- and money-saving efficiencies. The solutions represent a profound step-change in the ambition to set a new standard in the UK’s ageing healthcare infrastructure through technical innovation.
With the NHS multi-supplier framework, public bodies now have the opportunity to tap into innovative buildings solutions that enable automated monitoring and control of energy use, building occupancy, and asset visibility. Led by The Countess of Chester Commercial Hospital Procurement Services, the framework will drive the transformation of smart hospitals, creating world-class facilities fit for the future and improving efficiency through data-enabled solutions that respond to the needs of patients, staff and visitors.
To stand a chance of hitting net-zero targets, energy-intensive estates such as hospitals must embrace smart technologies. An energy-optimised building costs less to run, delivering maximum energy efficiencies and transforming user experiences. In a sector facing so many challenges, smart technologies can provide holistic solutions that go beyond single-win strategies.
Mark Bouldin is clean air expert at Johnson Controls.
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