AI Opportunities in Healthcare Emergency Management

Tips for successfully implementing emergency management technology

By Matt Icenroad
October 13, 2021

In the 20 years since Sept. 11, 2001, the healthcare industry has tried to build safer, more secure, and more resilient communities. These goals have been accomplished by using federal and private funding to buy hard assets, developing strategies to be better prepared, and training and educating staff on processes and actions during a crisis. As the healthcare industry continues to build resiliency, communities must be creative and use new and innovative solutions to solve these complex challenges.

For decades, hospitals and health systems have relied mainly on manual reporting and face-to-face interaction to guide their emergency responses. Emergency management teams gather in the physical command center to collect data — delivered by a runner from each unit — and map their next steps.

A completely manual response is challenging, complex, and time-consuming. For example, response actions and documentation vary depending on the roles of incident management team members. Also, response time increases while runners wait in the command center for members to complete data analysis and identify next steps. Also, managers often need to locate existing paper-based emergency response plans in the heat of the moment, and it's doubtful the plans are up to date.

While some organizations still rely on these manual processes, others have embraced emergency management technology to help streamline processes, improve consistency of response, and aid in performance improvement.

For example, since the COVID-19 virus began to disrupt global operations, hospitals and governments have embraced technology and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to address limited emergency room capacities and shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and intensive care beds. AI is a term for technologies or machines that can adapt and learn. About 75 percent of healthcare organizations will have invested in their AI potential by 2021 to improve their overall performance, according to the technology research company Gartner.

Identifying opportunities

AI has a place in bettering hospital functions and saving lives, and it is at the forefront of forward-facing healthcare and security. What kind of AI capabilities are available for hospitals, and how can managers begin to integrate this technology seamlessly?

Human safety. In the healthcare space, AI is seen as a tool for protecting staff, patients, and the public. For example, hospitals can use AI systems at their entrances to intercept people with COVID-19 symptoms and prevent them from visiting patients. Specially positioned cameras conduct facial thermal scans to identify discoloration, sweat, and other symptoms.

In China, a no-contact infrared sensor system singles out individuals in crowded railway stations who have a fever to prevent them from possibly spreading contagious diseases. The government of South Korea has developed an AI-based healthcare service that helps users self-report symptoms and notify others if they leave designated quarantine areas.

Capacity concerns. During the pandemic, the ability to accurately assess and respond to ICU bed capacity, which AI can enable, is critical. Quality care depends on having adequate bed space and the ability to move patients through quickly or notify government agencies. The first step is to conduct an on-site assessment of the facility, identify surge capacity capabilities and develop an online surge plan strategy that can be monitored in real-time. Organizations in Connecticut, Washington and Washington, D.C., use such plans to provide a coordinated COVID-19 response across the continuum of care.

Technology can be used in real time for incident management teams to support their planning assumptions, help them make informed decisions and rapidly assist organizations in recovery. Some healthcare systems also are developing AI-based triage tools that quickly differentiate between likely COVID-19 patients and those suffering from other ailments.

Critical services. Hospitals are exploring deploying robots to perform critical services, such as obtaining vital signs and delivering medication that otherwise would require human contact with a nurse, nurses’ aides, or physician. Other hospitals use AI to maximize lifesaving resources, such as ICUs, ventilators, and beds. China has developed a smart field hospital staffed primarily by intelligent robots, alleviating healthcare personnel exposure to the virus and relieving the burden on exhausted doctors and nurses. Using AI technology to perform services allows staff to reserve scarce PPE to conduct checks and attend to more critical patients.

Security matters. COVID-19 unquestionably has fast-tracked these AI applications, and organizations will learn a great deal through its utilization during this crisis. In the months to come, AI-driven technologies will be a dominant topic at trade shows and industry meetings about healthcare and security best practices. A number of AI applications will have value and relevance to organizations beyond the healthcare environment in protecting employees, customers, property, and processes.

For some, technology serves as a virtual command center when team members cannot physically convene on site or the event restricts teams from doing so. Others use it as the primary system to inform, engage and activate their teams when disaster strikes.

Making it work

What are the critical considerations in implementing emergency management technology successfully?

Dashboards. Remember those paper-based emergency response plans mentioned earlier? It’s critical that these plans are easily accessible and kept up to date. An emergency management dashboard can manage everything from emergency operations plans to the patient census, staffing, resources, and other critical information, along with the ability to ask custom questions to capture the critical data. Some emergency management technology provides tools for managing these plans in real time and seamlessly displaying essential information on the dashboard.

Team members. While the engagement of the emergency management team is critical to the success of this onboarding process, C-suite decision makers need real-time data and reporting. ensuring emergency management technology is configured with the needs of both audiences is key.

Champions and barriers. Champions are critical to successful onboarding, implementation and process improvement. Learning a new system takes time, and having in-house experts allows for faster adoption of the technology among team members, and it ensures the effective onboarding of new users. Understanding barriers — whether process, culture, or individuals — is vital to ensure the project plan and program are geared to help overcome challenges and rally additional support.

Timelines. Using emergency management technology brings tremendous value to incident management teams, but ensuring that technology is configured correctly and teams have a complete understanding of its use is paramount in an organization's success. Developing an implementation plan and timeline helps keep teams engaged and on track.

Technology use. Is emergency management technology a backup for times when the team can't physically gather in the emergency operations center, or is it the primary tool guiding the emergency response? While there isn't a right or wrong answer, it is important to set expectations with team members. Many emergency management technologies allow teams to access the systems remotely. If an emergency manager is offsite and can’t get to the facility for 30-60 minutes, he or she can review real-time data, assess the situation and make critical decisions before arriving at the hospital.

While implementing a new emergency management technology requires time and resources, ensuring the system is populated with up-to-date information and that team members are comfortable using the technology from day one is key to success. Ensuring that the team can reap the benefits of activating a response in 30 minutes or less, that the response is consistent and that data is actionable all require buy-in from the team and a commitment to the onboarding process.

Matt Icenroad is director of software solutions and lead fire and emergency management Consultant with Jensen Hughes. He provides expert guidance on emergency preparedness for healthcare facilities and developing the firm’s software solutions suite.

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