Engineers ward off hospital chaos

The barely controlled anarchy of a busy hospital is there for all to see. If you doubt this, pay a Friday-night visit to your local A&E department. Doctors dash from patient to patient, giving what help they can with limited access to medical records, and often limited experience of the ailments they face.

Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering is involved in a project which could soon solve these problems. The aim of the project (QoS DREAM) is to design an `intelligent hospital’ which knows the location of equipment and people and is able to configure communication networks accordingly.

To operate more efficiently, clinicians need to able to monitor patients while they work elsewhere, access medical records instantly, and seek rapid advice from experts.

The intelligent hospital is designed to address these needs. Using a high bandwidth wired network, touch screen communication terminals and a badge tracking system, clinicians and equipment can be located instantly, allowing live video conferencing links to be set up with patients and experts.

For example, as the clinician moves around the hospital, s/he may want access to information on intensive care patients. A system which knows where the clinician is at any time can simply deliver this information to the nearest display terminal.

Two interesting technologies underpin the project. Event-driven programming ties together independent programs over a network – allowing the system to deal with asynchronous occurrences, and dynamic media distribution provides high-quality audio and video links which are reconfigured smoothly as users move around.

The team is working with Addenbrooks hospital in Cambridge developing a system which should soon be ready for evaluation. However, says Andy Hopper, Professor of Communications Engineering, “the bulk of the value here is in the core technology” and he anticipates the project benefiting any busy indoor environment.