How can we smarten up children’s hospitals? Ask Alder Hey

3 Nov 2016

Hospital companion. Image: catalinr/Shutterstock

Ahead of his appearance at IoT World in Dublin later this November, Dr Iain Hennessey discusses the creative innovations that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in the UK is pioneering. The benefits, he said, will be grand.

Telemedicine is perhaps the most obvious and simple marriage of modern technology with modern medicine: A doctor sits in an office with a computer. A patient sits at home with a tablet. Both have Skype-like software.

Click once to ‘dial’ and spend 10 minutes chatting, without the need for physical waiting rooms or hours of sitting around reading dated magazines. Combine this with the promise of a speedy diagnosis that satisfies both the medic and the patient, and we can all move on quickly.

Though despite its obvious benefits, the internet of things (IoT) in this regard has not really caught on.


Medtech and money

Dr Iain Hennessey, clinical director of innovation at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, explains that it’s not any fear of technology that’s holding doctors back – it’s just simple economics.

“It has become incredibly highly regulated, but the way the tariff structure works… it’s hard to get paid for telemedicine,” said Hennessey, a consultant paediatric surgeon by trade. “If you get a patient into a clinic, you get £150. If you get someone on telemedicine, you get £12.”

The price disparity in the UK is because telemedicine, under current rules, gets counted as a telephone call. The tariff structure predates Skype, though Hennessy is hopeful that will change in future.

“The trouble is, telemedicine is not innovation – it’s just communications, it’s just medicine. So we should just be doing it. But it’s a frustrating area to work in.”

Dr Iain Hennessey, clinical director of innovation and consultant paediatric surgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. Image: Iain Hennessey

Dr Iain Hennessey, clinical director of innovation and consultant paediatric surgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. Image: Iain Hennessey

Jump through hoops

The benefits of screen time actually extends beyond diagnosis. Often parents and children are separated when brought to hospital; women could be placed in one hospital, their children in another. The solution? Pop a screen beside a bed and parents can watch over their children, providing peace of mind for very little money.

Here is where it gets messy though, as a plethora of protocols, best practices and regulations are genuinely important. You don’t want to be synced through to the wrong child, or at the wrong time. Add in the security of making sure hackers don’t break through the software and you’ve created a minefield of problems.

“Then there is the control issue,” said Hennessey. “You need each device to have a housing that will comply with infection control. Babies are fragile, you don’t want to introduce any bacteria.”

However, this can all be overcome and Hennessey is one of the doctors driving for this medtech change, often ahead of any other hospital in the UK.

He’s currently working on a new app to improve how patients interact with the hospital, and how he and his colleagues interact with the patients. Funded by charities, like much of his projects, the idea is pretty standard: gamification.

It’s in the game

Patients leave the hospital with doctors already knowing what data they need on an ongoing basis. Via the app, patients can inform medical professionals and, perhaps in return, get credits supplied by partner companies.

In a children’s hospital such as Alder Hey, for example, gaming is an obvious starting point. So Hennessey got Sony on board.

“How do we reward patients, children, to comply with the health advice that we give them? Tell a child that he or she controls diabetes or their leg falls off – it’s not what they listen to. But if you tell them to control their diabetes and we’ll give them 1,000 Sony credits, they do.”

The app in question has been tendered and is currently being built. IBM Watson’s IoT armoury is helping with the communication. It’s big business.

“This is absolutely key to how we work here,” said Hennessey of the partner model. “We invite partners in, we articulate our problems, they say what they have and we tell them if it’s a good solution. Otherwise they go off and build something and tell us we want it.”

That is not technology to help the health service. Medical professionals know what they need and they also know what’s possible, simply by looking at what consumers are using in everyday life.

Skype your doctor, swipe your app when you take your medicine. Simple stuff, really, with complications that should be viewed as things to be overcome. Hospitals like Alder Hey might hopefully spread the word.

Dr Iain Hennessey will be at Internet of Things World, a conference in Dublin later this month, discussing how partnerships will help improve connected healthcare.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic