Page last updated at 13:28 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 14:28 UK

How technology is helping hospitals

Spencer Kelly, presenter of Click, the BBC's flagship technology programme
By Spencer Kelly

As Britain's National Health Service celebrates its 60th birthday, new digital technology is revolutionising old working methods in a drive for greater efficiency.

X-rays being shown on high resolution computer screens
X-rays are instantly available in a ward and consultant's office

The National Health Service has come a long way since its inception.

An x-ray is an old fashioned photograph which takes time to develop and then exists as an artefact that has to be physically passed around to everyone who needs it.

But having an x-ray taken at the Countess of Chester hospital in the north west of England no longer involves any film or photographic chemicals.

Instead a machine scans the image straight into a central database and makes it instantly available on the radiology ward and across the hospital in the consultant's office.

At this hospital the images are scrutinised by expert eyes on high-resolution screens and, while other hospitals are doing the same thing, in Chester they have gone one step further.

Speech recognition

Using speech recognition - with a specialised medical dictionary to add notes directly to the image - cuts out the need for dictation and eliminates typing errors.

"The reports I have done this morning can be signed off while I am having a coffee break. They are then immediately available on the wards to doctors who need the information," says Dr Ann Wright, consultant radiologist.

"So there is no sitting around for several days waiting for the typists to catch up with the reports and then waiting for us to check their typing. It is a very rapid turnaround."

Peter Kruger, Senior Analyst at Wireless Healthcare believes "it would be a mistake to think that innovation is anything new in the health service. Certainly anybody within the health service gets very upset when you say that the health service is undergoing some sort of technical revolution."

A touch screen computer at the Royal Orthpaedic Hospital in Birmingham
Registering in reception signals to the ward that a patient has arrived

"In fact, in its 60 year history it has seen some tremendous changes in the way that healthcare is delivered to the patient. It is just that recently what has happened is the actual user interface for the health service has changed quite radically."

New interface

The new interface starts with a touchscreen computer at the front door.

At the Royal Orthpaedic Hospital in Birmingham, patients can register in reception at and this signals their arrival on the ward.

That is not the only use for the touchscreen. Tablet personal computers are used to replicate the standard drawings made during a consultation with a physiotherapist. Just like the x-rays this information is added to your electronic patient record, which is all the stuff your doctor gathers about you, stored centrally for authorised users to access when they need it most.

Installing a wireless network makes that data easier to read or update.

"Electronic patient records means obviously there are no more lost notes. So we have not got to track down lost records," says Chris Aspland, project leader.

"The wireless technology means we can be at the bedside of the patient or whereever they are. In future GPs will be able to refer electronically so there will be no referrals lost in the post and obviously they will be here a lot quicker."

The benefits of wi-fi

Once you have got your wi-fi network set up in a hospital, you can do other things with it apart from just send patient records around.

Doctors need equipment that is mobile which usually means fitting wheels to absolutely everything. But that can make just the right bit of kit hard to find in a hurry.

Staff at the Bristol Royal Hospital For Children have a button on their phone marked "cooee". You press it and tell it what you are seeking.

It is all well and good when it tells you that the nearest wheelchair is in ward 20, but maybe you need a bit more detail about how to get there. On another terminal you have a map which, just as you would expect, will point you in the right direction with an accuracy of a few metres.

The "cooee" phone
Staff can locate equipment using a desk-top and mobile phone

The system knows where each bit of kit is by listening out for a tag, and then triangulating its position between three wi-fi access points.

And that is not all. Wi-fi phones give access to the voice activated system when you are away from the desk.

"Previously, if we needed a piece of equipment, you would have to ring around all the ward areas to see whether they had it, but now all we need to do it look it up on the computer. A quick two minute job on the computer, phone for a porter, and the bit of equipment comes," says Anne Miller, matron.

So, in theory, nothing will ever be lost again.

NHS to speed up technology use
06 Oct 07 |  Health

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