Anyone interested in modern, digital-friendly hospital management concepts cannot overlook the Essen University Hospital. In 2015, the hospital had already begun its process of transforming into a “smart hospital.” In a conversation with VIEW, Prof. Dr. Jochen A. Werner, medical director and chairman of University Medicine Essen, explains what is meant by the concept and what the practical implementation looks like.
Professor Werner, how do you define “smart hospital”?
We consider the smart hospital project to be the response to the greatest process of change in the history of medicine – digitization, but also the increasingly limited possibilities of the state health systems due to demographic change. Already in 2015, we initiated this process of transformation into the hospital of the future with a comprehensive business and medical strategy.
"The smart hospital is the control platform as well as the networked, open-information backbone of the healthcare system. It is in the center of the medical value-added chain and is supplemented by integrated or downstream treatment and rehabilitation facilities. It is not the walls of a hospital but instead the health and illness history of patients which defines the sphere of influence – the patient is taken care of and accompanied throughout all phases of life."
Prof. Dr. Jochen A. Werner
Medical director and chairman of University Medicine Essen
These efforts towards permanent maintenance of health, or at least the earliest possible detection of diseases, is a paradigm shift in comparison to the still largely predominant function of a hospital as a “repair shop.” Moreover, this hospital of the future, which is currently being developed in Essen, is also an important contribution to the structural changes in the Ruhr metropolitan area where the healthcare industry is increasingly replacing the old industries such as coal and steel and creating future-proof jobs.
What is the philosophy behind the smart hospital?
There is essentially only one predominant philosophy behind the smart hospital: to resolutely focus on people and put the well-being of patients and their families, but also that of our employees at the forefront of all of our efforts. This sounds trivial at first, but it is a major challenge, because traditional structures and processes in the healthcare system and also in the hospital often only focus on themselves and sometimes lose sight of the actual objective. Digitization must explicitly serve people. Only then it will be a pioneer for humane medicine.
What are the ingredients needed to become a smart hospital? How are these used and implemented in the hospital?
The smart hospital project is a comprehensive and challenging change process because it transforms a traditional university hospital into a digitized organization which is focused on patients and employees. For this, we need not only a modern IT structure, our electronic patient files or an increasing use of artificial intelligence – above all, we need courage, determination, new ways of thinking, and changes in our dealings with one another.
Medicine has to change from within in order to shape this major clinical and societal transformation positively for everyone involved. As a result, our entire medical and corporate strategy is also oriented towards this vision, starting with the hiring and training of digital AND medical talent, the staffing of hospital directors and additional management positions, and extending to investments in medical equipment and infrastructure. Ultimately, the aim is to take our employees on this path, to keep them fully informed and involved, and gain them as supporters.
Which processes must change on the path to becoming a smart hospital?
The established hierarchical and communication patterns above all have to be reconsidered and redesigned. We must move from a university-oriented, authoritative, sharply hierarchical structure to an open and respectful dialogue with all occupational and functional groups. This is without a doubt the greatest challenge. The processes in the hospital must consolidate around people and their needs.
The nation’s first “Institute for Patient Experience” here at the University Medicine Essen serves this purpose. Its task is to analyze and optimize all internal processes with the goal of sustainably improving the welfare of patients. At the same time, the employees’ working environment must be improved. It is precisely this point which is wrongly often forgotten in the discussion of the perspectives of digitized medicine – digitization offers hospital employees in particular a great opportunity to be relieved from duties away from the patient, such as documentation, and to have more time for the patient as a result.
What benefit does a smart hospital have for the patient? What benefit for the healthcare system?
First of all, the chance to harness the new opportunities created in digitization for the patient, especially in the case of complex clinical pictures. To do this, we are in particular utilizing major advancements in the field of diagnostics. And finally, the smart hospital, as a digitized control unit with open information on all sides in the center of the state healthcare system, also fulfills an important health policy function. It is closely intertwined with all upstream and downstream medical services, private-practice physicians, rehabilitation facilities as well as pharmacies and it thus minimizes the inefficiencies in the system and makes boundaries between various sectors noticeably more open. In this respect, the smart hospital not only has a major benefit for the patients and employees of a hospital, but also for the healthcare system overall.