Patients at Guangdong General Hospital are first greeted and treated not by nurses, but by artificial intelligence (AI). Not only is an AI system the first point of contact at China’s first smart hospital, caring for patients can begin long before they step into the building, with an automated diagnostic system powered by deep learning and delivered through China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat.

Describe the symptoms of a flu infection to the hospital AI, and it will respond with chat messages advising early treatment, book you a time to see the doctor, and even offer emotional support. Visits to the patient’s local clinic can be substantially reduced, with medical experts assessing the AI as 90 percent effective in diagnosing common ailments.

As impressive as AI diagnosis may be, when we look at the factors driving the change, it’s clear that the digital transformation of healthcare is only just beginning.

A nexus of revolutionary technologies
Gene therapies. AI diagnostics. Nanosurgery techniques. The list of transformational healthcare technologies emerging today would fill pages. Hospitals stand at the brink of transformational change.

Long-established healthcare institutions are faced with the challenge of understanding, not just how new technologies will change individual treatments, but how they will interact to create spectacular change.

If deep learning and smartphones brought AI diagnostics by 2018, what can we expect in 2028? While we can predict first-order changes, like an individual new treatment, changes of second-order magnitude, arising from the interaction of multiple technologies, are harder to predict. The risk of investing in the wrong technology is the single biggest barrier to progress.

Smart hospitals are the nexus of digital transformation. Investing in smart hospitals provides a flexible infrastructure for the deployment of future technologies.

Transforming healthcare with digital monitoring
Apple’s major investment in HealthKit is indicative of an important emerging trend: biotelemetry. Smartphones and health bands are the foundation of technologies that will ultimately monitor all of the body’s critical functions. If the first task of every good doctor is to observe the patient, it’s useful that doctors can draw on observations made 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Biotelemetry can reveal behavioral patterns of sleep, diet and stress that are indicative of oncoming illnesses. The technology is in turn substantially shifting the emphasis of healthcare from intervention to prevention and from treating illness to supporting wellness.

The smart hospital is always present with its patients, monitoring and analyzing to pre-empt ill health.

Digitally changing the shape of hospitals
Bricks and mortar, steel and glass. Hospitals in the 20th century were identified with physical buildings. Now in the 21st century, our idea of the hospital is shifting from physical sites to virtual networks. Buildings are still essential, but they are joined by web interfaces, smartphone apps, AI systems, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences that are as much a part of the hospital as its physical site.

The networked hospital is a mental shift in how institutions understand themselves, a shift that allows the fullest flexibility as digital transformation unfolds. Many of the biggest advances in 21st century healthcare will be delivered, in part or in full, in virtual spaces.

The smart hospital remains engaged with its patients wherever they are in the world, and throughout their lives.

The patient experience of the next generation of smart hospitals will represent a paradigmatic advance on hospitals of the last century. Not only will the smart hospital be a gateway to advanced treatments for serious illnesses, but many of those illnesses will be averted by early interventions. The smart hospital will be a constant, caring presence in the patient’s life, virtual and physical.

So, how do we unlock the potential of the smart hospital? Navigating through the titanic changes unleashed by digital transformation will take strong leadership. Foresight is needed to predict which new technologies will take hold, and how they will interact. Insight is needed to understand how hospitals must adapt to accommodate change. But with the right leadership, the future of hospitals has never been more promising.