Our buildings have felt the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While offices, schools, and retail outlets have seen months of zero occupancies, our residential buildings have played the role of home and workplace as hundreds of millions were locked down for extended periods over the past 14-months. However, perhaps no type of building has felt a greater impact from the pandemic than our healthcare facilities.
Hospitals, in particular, have been front-and-center of the crisis as record numbers of critical patients overwhelmed public health systems. The pandemic is exposing many problems and inefficiencies as healthcare facilities are stretched to their limits and underlines the need for greater investment in more intelligent solutions going forward.
“Most global health facilities were ill-prepared for the advent of the pandemic, not only in terms of a lack of personal protective equipment, relevant hospital equipment, and sanitizing supplies but also in terms of the building systems required to effectively manage the huge surge of patient admissions,” explains our latest report – AI & Machine Learning in Smart Commercial Buildings. “The deficiencies exposed by the pandemic are promoting healthcare organizations around the world to invent new essential plans for future pandemic preparedness.”
Earlier this year, the American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE) of the American Hospital Association and the Naval Medicine Readiness and Training Command created new guidance documentation that offers a literature review of recommended practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force and ASHE resources on HVAC controls for healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients, while also protecting non-COVID-19 patients and healthcare staff from the virus.
The update includes resources for using building controls to reduce potential COVID-19 exposures, for example optimizing air-handling systems to ensure proper air filtration in facilities and support the use of physical barriers to guide walkways. Additional guidance includes the use of airborne infection isolation rooms (AIIRs) for symptomatic patients and those undergoing aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs). The complexity of this new healthcare HVAC landscape is now driving the case for artificial intelligence (AI) systems to support infection mitigation efforts while also optimizing energy efficiency and occupant comfort.
“HVAC systems in healthcare facilities play an essential role. They are vital to maintaining a safe, stable environment and protect not just patients but also medical staff, other employees, and visitors. Hospital operators can achieve this goal using properly designed and developed HVAC systems that allow the separation and isolation of infectious patients. The division of air channels reduces the risk of airborne diseases infecting other users of the healthcare facility,” explains our new report. “AI-assisted systems can provide additional insight and supervisory control to help maintain sanitary airflow while at the same time optimizing energy usage of HVAC systems in healthcare.”
As is often the case with AI, the benefits of increased system intelligence are broad. For HVAC in healthcare facilities, AI can also be used to empower operators to more effectively address issues in critical equipment and systems to avoid potentially life-threatening problems during the crisis. In an evolution from reactive maintenance to a more conditions-based and proactive maintenance approach, AI-enabled HVAC can lead to increased efficiency, a lower risk of unplanned outages, and downtime that could negatively impact patient care or the productivity of healthcare staff. Intelligent proactive maintenance can reduce the burden of administrative work for healthcare staff, freeing up their time to deliver improved patient care.
As with many other building verticals, it is increasingly clear that AI presents a broad range of potential benefits for healthcare facilities. Applications from the energy and performance optimization of HVAC systems as discussed here, to lighting, maintenance, training, and asset tracking, in addition to a wide range of medical applications including diagnosis, early detection, and end of life care. Our research shows that healthcare executives and facilities managers are already exploring and trialing various systems with the hope of bringing the benefits of AI to their operations. However, after the last 14 months of unprecedented crisis mode for healthcare systems, the biggest barrier to the full implementation of AI is likely to be cost.
“Hospitals and healthcare facilities are facing huge technical and financial challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Hospital Association estimates a financial impact of $202.6 billion in lost revenue for America's hospitals and healthcare systems, or an average of $50.7 billion per month,” explains our comprehensive AI report. “Furthermore, it could cost low- and middle-income countries ~ US$52 billion (equivalent to US$8.60 per person) each four weeks to provide an effective healthcare response to COVID-19.”
Healthcare facilities will need sophisticated, and therefore costly, computing resources and data processing capacity to build and maintain AI systems. AI systems must also be trained on many different data sets for the various use cases they are to be applied to, and obtaining those resources further raises costs.
Once the dust begins to settle on the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems, both public and private, will be hoping that the scale of the crisis and need to be better prepared for future pandemics, will drive new and significant funding into the sector. That new funding is likely to bring a new level of intelligence to our crucial and overstretched healthcare facilities.