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Thursday, 11 November, 1999, 13:08 GMT
Bug alert for 21st-century hospitals
Trolley
The standard hospital trolley could soon be a thing of the past
There will be no room for bacteria in the hospital of the future, according to a top scientist.

Dr Charles Wilson, director of the Institute for the Future, University of California at San Francisco, predicts a network of sensors will be dotted around hospitals to alert staff to any potential germs on the loose.

He says sensors could be fitted in sinks to ensure staff and visitors wash their hands before going into a patient's room.

Hand-held monitors could allow staff to identify people who come into the hospital carrying germs which could threaten patients' recovery.

They will be sensitive enough to identify the specific organism involved.

The prediction comes amid worries about the rise in outbreaks of MRSA, a mainly hospital-based bug, which is resistant to many forms of antibiotic.

In a paper in the British Medical Journal this week, Dr Wilson predicts that biosensors could revolutionise the way healthcare is delivered in the next 10 years, improving the quality of care and allowing more patients to be treated at home.

He says hospitals will be safer and more efficient.

But he says that many of the changes will be expensive and in many parts of the world "irrelevant", because of more significant public health problems.

If Dr Wilson is right, the typical hospital in 2010 will have a vent in the ceiling of the lobby in which there is an air monitor that detects and alerts staff to any visitors who might transmit an airborne infection to a patient.

Electronic noses

The central laboratory in a hospital will no longer exist, according to Dr Wilson. Instead, the bacteriology laboratory will have been replaced by hand-held biosensors, some of them functioning as "electronic noses" and others will detect and identify organisms in sputum, urine and other secretions.

This and telemedicine will mean more patients will be treated at home in the future, he states.

In the case of acutely ill patients, chemical sensors will be fitted on infusion catheters and beds. Readings will be taken by authorised staff.

He predicts another transformation will be that the table used in operating rooms and the hospital bed will be the same piece of equipment, wheeled around by robots.

The bed will be able to monitor vital signs and blood chemistry through the use of embedded sensors.

It will also be equipped to provide mechanical ventilation, suction, intravascular infusion and cardiac defibrillation under the control of sensors.

Sensors will also be used in primary care, says Dr Wilson.

Patients fitted with smart pacemakers, artificial retinas and chemical sensors will be able to be monitored in walk-in primary care centres.

Smart blood pressure sensors will manage drugs for patients with hypertension, sending an immediate alert to the central monitoring unit when integrated sensors for cardiac function and vital signs indicate an unexpected problem.

Nurses will be able to check weight, vital signs and bacteria in patients' urine.

However, Dr Wilson also points out that there are much more effective steps that could be taken to improve the health of the population.

"New and better vaccines for preventing common conditions afflicting many millions throughout the world would be a far greater benefit to humankind than all the sensors that will be developed and manufactured in the next decade," he says.

See also:

11 Nov 99 | Health
Medics peer into the future
11 Nov 99 | Health
Taking the needle out of diabetes
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