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How UPMC is creating a 'touchless' patient experience

July 28, 2020

    As telehealth booms amid Covid-19, more and more visits are moving outside of the four walls of hospitals and clinics. But not all care can or should be conducted virtually, so health care organizations are rethinking physical spaces.

    Q&A: How Kinsa is using its smart thermometers to track Covid-19 in real time

    As patients return to facilities for in-person care, their expectations for safety and hygiene—always a  top priority—are higher than ever. For patients, clinical safety and hygiene have both taken on new meanings in the Covid-19 era. Patients want to be welcomed back to facilities that are cleaned frequently and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Touchless technologies can help health care organizations restructure the in-person care experience to minimize physical contact and infection spread.

    We spoke with Chris Carmody, SVP of Enterprise IT Infrastructure, to learn more about the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UPMC) ventures into touchless technologies.

    How UPMC deployed a touchless temperature check in 3 weeks

    Several years ago, UPMC began exploring ways to limit touchpoints and streamline the patient experience at its facilities. This work was initially driven by consumerism but was accelerated due to Covid-19. "We need to make sure they're coming to a safe and clean environment," Carmody said.

    In only three weeks, UPMC deployed touchless thermometers across 40 hospitals. The devices—which provide a more accurate temperature reading than handheld thermometers—are placed on stands or hung on the wall in high-traffic entrances and can operate without the need for staff support.  

    Using the devices, which are tablets with infrared cameras, UPMC's hospitals can check temperatures of clinicians and patients entering a facility to identify individuals who present with high temperatures. If a patient's temperature exceeds the acceptable level, staff are immediately notified, and the care team determines the appropriate next steps based on the individual's health care needs. Actions can range from continuing care with enhanced safety protocols to scheduling a telehealth visit.

    UPMC's quick deployment of touchless temperature checks was driven in part by the organization's standing partnership with the biometrics vendor Certify. Although the health system was already using Certify's biometrics platform, it needed to quickly activate the platform's temperature check capability and install more devices in response to Covid-19.

    Today, UPMC has 150 devices in use across its hospitals, and the devices take approximately 65,000 temperatures daily.

    What's next for UPMC: Smart lights, facial recognition, and more

    At UPMC, the future of the patient experience will be increasingly touchless. "Touchless is the new way. We're not adopting for the short-term," Carmody added.

    The medical center is pursuing several different projects to create a more seamless patient experience:

    • Electronic check-ins: Today, patients can use a mobile app to complete forms and answer questionnaires as part of the check-in process. For patients without smart phones, UPMC provides regularly sanitized tablets. This keeps patients out of a physical waiting room and allows providers to carefully coordinate and time their arrival.

    • Facial recognition: UPMC currently has kiosks where patients can use their fingerprints to check in without interacting with front desk staff. To eliminate the need for physical kiosks, UPMC is working with Certify on a facial recognition platform for patient authentication. The facial recognition tool will further streamline the check-in process while preventing fraud on the backend by making sure patients are who they say they are. They are now evaluating how to connect this new data stream to UPMC's systems so it can be operationalized.

    • Smart technology in vision facilities: UPMC is building a new facility for vision care, and it is exploring different operational technologies to support patients. For instance, the health system is looking into smart lights that can be dimmed or brightened to fit the needs of patients.

    UPMC's projects are all driven by a common goal: to improve the patient experience. Right now, that means keeping patients safe by minimizing physical contact. But in the future, it will extend to the dynamic needs of their patients. "As much as we are enthralled with the shiny new technology, it comes back to the consumerism theme: How can we make an easier experience for patients?" Carmody said.

    Will Covid-19 push us closer to contactless care—and should it?

    Social distancing could someday be seen as a fleeting guideline of the America's coronavirus epidemic. But when it comes to health care, the renewed focus on hygiene and contactless interactions will benefit the most vulnerable patients who are at risk for other infections. Building a
    "smart" hospital was once a long-term aspiration, but it may now be a necessity to meet the safety demands of patients.

    Technologies like facial recognition, mobile check-ins, wearables, telehealth, in-room virtual assistants, ambient devices, and robotics can transform a once high-touch care episode into a truly contactless experience. There will always be a need for face-to-face contact for certain clinical interactions, but technology can surround these interactions to dramatically reduce superfluous physical contact and associated risk.

    For this to become a reality, however, health care leaders must prioritize two outstanding issues—privacy and equity. As we further digitize the care journey, we will collect more data on patients. Some information, such as sensitive biometric and health care data, will need to be treated with an increased level of security. Organizations also need to account for patients who don't have access to smart devices.


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