Hospital now wired for success

A visit to the Unilever soap factory has revolutionised patient care at Hutt Hospital.

Waiting times and surgery cancellations have plunged since it adopted a tracking system designed for detergent and washing powder.

Until 2013, the hospital had never hit its target for emergency department waiting times, treating patients within six hours only 80 per cent of the time.

Since creating its operations hub last January, it has met its 95 per cent target every quarter.

"We did have patients in corridors, on trolleys, regularly," said Pete Chandler, the hospital's chief operating officer. "The old ways of working really weren't working for us any more."

In 2012 management went on a leadership trip to Unilever in Petone, and found inspiration.

The resulting nerve centre is surprisingly calm, its centrepiece four huge screens displaying brightly coloured speedometers, bar graphs and traffic lights.

Chandler had given a picture of the Starship Enterprise to his project manager for inspiration, he said. Hospital IT engineers designed all the new software required in-house.

Staff can monitor almost every aspect of hospital life on the screens, which can also be accessed remotely.

Every patient in ED has their waiting times monitored, staff can see how long it will take for X-rays or lab results to be returned, and the need for specialists can be anticipated.

Staffing efficiency means scheduled surgery cancellations have dropped by two-thirds.

Patients in surgery are physically tracked by armbands with radio frequency signals to save surgeons searching seven wards to find them.

"No hospital in New Zealand, to our knowledge, is doing that," Chandler said.

Where once it took half an hour of phoning around each ward and running between floors to discover the number of available beds, the figures are now updated in real time.

The system cost about $300,000 to set up, mostly in building work for the room. The hub saves the hospital an average $500,000 a year, but many benefits - such as patient safety - could not be counted in dollars, Chandler said.

Only Bay of Plenty and Middlemore hospitals used anything resembling the Hutt's tracking system, and health boards from Australia had visited to see the ops centre in action, hospital manager Peng Voon said.

As the data started to roll in, it was discovered some wards were "hiding" the fact they had spare beds because they did not have the staffing to cope with extra patients, she said.

Information was held separately by each ward, on paper rather than electronically, so nobody realised some wards were quiet while others were always frantic.

In one case, nurses had been allocating two hours every shift to changing dressings, which ought to be a quick job.

"Everybody works together now," Voon said. "You can't hide beds. It's been a real cultural change - peer pressure and peer support."

The Dominion Post