Technosavvy : The world’s first digital hospital

When Gwen Allen’s 60-year-old husband had a heart attack in June, she had no doubt where she wanted the ambulance to go. After all, she is a nurse at St Anthony Hospital in downtown Oklahoma City. “Take him to the Oklahoma Heart Hospital,” she told the driver. Pharmacist Mickey Morrow lives in Ardmore, 100 miles outside Oklahoma City. He not only picked the Oklahoma Heart Hospital for his recent heart operation, but advises his pharmacy customers to go there instead of the alternatives closer at hand. Morrow enjoyed his time at the hospital so much that he logs on to its website to watch live surgery broadcasts. “I’m so fortunate to have lived long enough to see this technology at work,” he says. Enjoyment isn’t something you associate with a hospital visit, especially an institution dedicated to diagnosing and fixing life-threatening heart conditions, but the Oklahoma Heart Hospital genuinely expects patients to enjoy their stay.

“We want to create a place where patients feel relaxed,” says Jeff Jones, the hospital’s lead system specialist. “Hospitals always had an egotistical attitude to dealing with the patient. They treat people like children. Stress is probably the number one cause of heart attacks, and if you bring people into a stressful situation, how are they going to get better?” Opened in August 2002, OK Heart, as it is known to locals, was the first “digital hospital” in the world. There are still just a handful, most of which are in the US. In a digital hospital there are no paper records, no x-ray films and no storage room for patient files. If the paperless office has proved to be, in the words of one management consultant “about as likely as the paperless toilet,” the paperless hospital is already with us. And the prescription is working: the hospital rates in the top 1 per cent in the US for patient satisfaction. Jones is the architect of the computer systems inside this $75m trailblazer, and says it is modelled on a five-star hotel. The building’s technology automates every aspect of patient care: advising doctors on the most appropriate treatment, scheduling visits, making information available instantly anywhere in the hospital, from the operating theatre to the pharmacy.

On the first floor, groups of eight rooms are arranged in quiet pods around a nursing station, where nurses monitor vital signs on a bank of computer monitors. If a patient’s heart rate rises or blood pressure spikes, an alarm sounds. If the monitoring software decides it is serious, then the nurses, wherever they are, automatically get a call or text message on their mobile phones. Press the button to call for a nurse and it is routed direct to his or her mobile. This computer-based monitoring, Jones explains, is literally a lifesaver, because by automating the alert it removes the possibility of human error. “We have to accept that if you put people in a position to make a mistake, then sooner or later, they will,” he says. “Five years ago, a hospital like this would have had a heart monitor by the bed, which sounds an alarm. It is amazing how many patients have died in hospital because their door was closed when the alarm went off.”