Amid the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a hopeful glimpse of healthcare’s future. And it came from the very epicenter of the outbreak — Wuhan, China — where in the early days of March, a temporary field hospital was set up, manned entirely by robots.

The bots, provided by a Beijing startup known as CloudMinds Technology and remotely controlled by human hands, measured the temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen level of patients at the facility, which was set up in Hong Shan Sports Center. They also delivered food and medication, disinfected the place and even helped alleviate the tedium by dancing for patients.

It was a short-lived arrangement, but a promising one. Not only were overworked healthcare providers spared potential exposure to the virus and given a much-deserved break, but large numbers of patients were given access to safe, quality care that they would not have otherwise received. And while a hospital devoid of human contact is hardly an ideal situation outside of a pandemic, it does support a larger worldwide trend toward powerfully tech-centric healthcare facilities. 

Going far beyond telehealth or electronic health records, these so-called “smart” facilities incorporate technology so seamlessly into day-to-day care that healthcare staff can effectively be in two places at once.

Take, for example, remote patient monitoring systems that hospitals and nursing homes use to track vital signs and movements from afar. Remote tracking technology has proven particularly valuable during the coronavirus pandemic as nurses and aides can more safely address patient concerns as they arise, rather than relying on hours of inefficient ad-hoc inspections. 

Doctors, too, can serve larger and larger populations of patients with an increase in quality, thanks to the automation of certain patient interactions. While CloudMinds’ dancing robots in Wuhan leave much to be desired when it comes to bedside manner, far more promising are innovations like artificial intelligence to sharpen diagnoses and decrease errors, and ingestible sensors to diagnose diabetes or hypertension.

While some tech advancements in the pipeline have been put on hold due to supply-chain disruptions during the pandemic, the trend in that direction figures to continue. It will be a welcome one, too, given the pressures healthcare facilities face to serve an aging population with a short supply of adequately trained healthcare workers. 

In fact, by 2050, some 90 million Americans will be 65 or older, nearly twice as many as today. And the WHO projects a global shortage of 18 million healthcare workers over the next decade.

Thankfully, these smart facilities are expected to become more prevalent in the years ahead, with the smart hospital market projected to grow 24% annually from 2019 to 2024.

For an example of what smart facilities of the future may look like, consider Toronto’s Humber River Hospital, which in 2015 became North America’s first all-digital hospital. 

That doesn’t mean patients are devoid of human contact. What it does mean is that three-quarters of its back-of-the-hospital functions — things like the delivery of medication and food, as well as laundry service — are automated. In addition, sensors track the whereabouts of patients and staff, and those working in the central dispatch area scan monitors to make sure operations are proceeding smoothly. 

The result is a facility that operates as efficiently as any, and more efficiently than most. The hospital was as well-equipped as any to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. That is hardly an accident. Ground was broken in 2011, just eight years after SARS swept across the globe, infecting over 8,000 and killing nearly 800, including 44 Canadians.

Humber features over 80 rooms that are quarantine-ready, in that they can be converted to “negative-pressure” rooms, where air circulates within them but doesn’t flow into other areas of the hospital. The delivery robots have also been helpful during the pandemic, as they keep staff from being exposed to infected patients.

On the non-tech front, there is a room adjacent to the facility’s ambulance bay that affords staff the opportunity to make first contact with patients who might have been exposed to a virus, and assess conditions without exposing the hospital population as a whole. The room also features a shower, which enables staff to decontaminate.

During this state of emergency, the hope around the globe was that widespread technological implementation would reduce the error and infection rates, allow patients to have more direct control of the environment within their rooms and facilitate safe and efficient face-to-face interaction between doctors and patients. In essence, the patient experience is improved, the burden placed upon healthcare professionals is eased and information is made more accessible to all parties involved.

We received hints at all those possibilities when the robots began roaming that makeshift hospital in Wuhan, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. But pandemic or not, it’s clear that the healthcare industry would benefit greatly if such facilities became the norm. The automations central to smart healthcare facilities would dramatically ease the burdens of an already-strained system by freeing up workers to provide care for patients who need it most.