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5 Ways Hospitals Will Change in Next Decade

How innovations and technologies could revolutionize patient care

Interior of lobby and Sibley Hospital in Washington DC

Harry Connolly, Courtesy of Sibley Hospital

The main lobby at SIbley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. An example of the more welcoming and patient-friendly design coming to hospital common areas.

En español | Thanks to advancements in treatments and technologies, health care is constantly evolving. And hospitals, in particular, will continue to be at the forefront of this evolution.

Here are five trends that experts predict will change hospital care by 2030.

Hospitals will become more age-friendly

By 2034, Americans 65 and older are expected to outnumber those 18 and younger for the first time in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And hospitals are preparing for this momentous shift.

Facilities around the country are adopting more age-friendly approaches to care, explains Melissa Batchelor, an associate professor of nursing and director of the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. This includes helping prevent falls by making sure care teams encourage mobility among older patients during hospital stays. It also means taking a more cautious approach when prescribing medications, which can disorient older people and trigger delirium.

Some hopsitals are getting rid of harsh florescent lighting in patient rooms and using systems that correspond to normal day and night cycles.

Physical environments are also getting revamped for an aging population, with nonslip floors, indirect lighting (which helps patients stick to their normal sleep-wake cycles), and large-print wall clocks and calendars. Some emergency departments even keep reading glasses and hearing amplifiers on hand for patients who need them.

"When it's friendly for older adults, it's friendly for everybody,” Batchelor says about the changes taking place in hospitals.

Age-friendly care will likely extend beyond the hospital in the next decade, as well. Batchelor points to the community-based “village” movement, where neighbors check in on neighbors. This could be an especially useful resource for hospitals to tap into when patients are discharged, she says, “to make sure they have the support they need” at home.

They'll become less hospital-like

A grand piano near central registration? Walking paths and water gardens outside the emergency room? More hospitals are shedding their sterile, fluorescent-lit reputations and embracing a warmer, welcoming image. And experts expect this trend to continue.

"In the not-too-distant future, many hospitals may start to feel more like hotels — not luxury hotels but, rather, ones with basic customer conveniences,” says Robert Huckman, faculty chair of the Harvard Business School Health Care Initiative. “When patients seek health care, they're often in pain or distress and are probably facing some degree of anxiety or uncertainty about what their condition means. It would seem that there's no better time to provide sources of comfort that would, if anything, ease anxiety, rather than elevate it."

Some hospitals, including Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas in Austin, have eliminated waiting rooms to improve the patient experience. Others have installed colorful art on previously beige walls, added spas for cancer patients and replaced coffee bars with cold-pressed juice cafes. The strong smell of coffee can make patients nauseated, and the sound of grinding beans can add to noise levels, explains Brian Van Winkle, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Sibley Innovation Hub. “We spend a lot of time in the hospital setting, so it's worthwhile putting thought into how to make this experience … a less painful one,” he adds.

Telemedicine example: Virtual Doctor Visits

Toby Talbot/Associated Press

A physician in Vermont consults via computer. Experts predict increased use of telemedcine for follow-up visits and ongoing montioring.

Care will extend beyond hospital walls

Telehealth technologies and data-driven innovations will enable health care providers to monitor and deliver advanced care in the patient's home, experts predict.

By providing patients with wearable devices, physicians and health coaches may increasingly be able to keep an eye on patterns in their blood glucose level, for example, and proactively coach them on the best ways to manage their conditions before major problems arise, Harvard's Huckman explains.

Video visits can also put patients in touch with specialists at the click of a button and help those recently discharged from the hospital check in with their provider from the comfort of their couch. Hospitals are even bringing their equipment and staff into the patient's home to provide full care, which studies show can improve health outcomes and lower costs.

And with nontraditional businesses entering the health field, including Walmart, CVS and Best Buy, Van Winkle says, health systems might feel mounting pressure “to innovate a little quicker,” which could lead to more care options in nontraditional settings, such as company campuses.

"Hospitals are still going to be physical buildings in 2030; I don't think that's going to be different,” says Andrew Shin, chief operating officer at the American Hospital Association Center for Health Innovation. “But I think what's changing is, you're now going to have increasing amounts of virtual and home extensions, enabled by technology.”

AI will aid doctors’ decision-making

Artificial intelligence (AI) is not going to replace the role of doctors any time soon. But over the next decade, it could become a more common tool that providers use when caring for clients.

Radiology is one area in which there is a growing interest in AI. Recent research, published in the journal Nature, found that computers trained to recognize patterns and interpret images did a better job at locating breast cancer on mammograms than radiologists. AI can also help physicians personalize a patient's treatment plan and predict risk for future conditions.

Shin sees the use of AI technologies as a way to “make things a little bit easier” for doctors. “But, ultimately, the clinicians are still very much integral to the actual delivery of care treatment in diagnosis,” he says.

There are still wrinkles that need to be ironed out before machine automation becomes mainstream in health care, including data privacy concerns, racial bias and algorithm regulation. Even so, some researchers predict that AI will start to show up in clinical practice in the next five years and will be used more extensively in about a decade.

Technology will slash time spent on clerical work

AI can help make hospitals more efficient behind the scenes, too. For example, robotic process automation can cut down on the time hospital staff spend on administrative tasks, such as billing, patient enrollment and scheduling.

"That's not a sexy innovation, but it's really disruptive when you think about all the administrative work that staff do behind the scenes,” Johns Hopkins’ Van Winkle says.

Health systems are also looking into the use of AI for speech recognition, to help providers transcribe patient-physician interactions and record patient notes, thereby freeing doctors to spend more time with clients.

"At the end of the day, hospitals are about patient care,” Shin says. “So the less time you're spending on other stuff and the more time you are spending on patient care, the better.”

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