Oct 13, 2020

Why hospitals need to operate like air traffic control centers

5 min read

COVID-19 may have indicated otherwise, but the last few decades, global air traffic numbers have been constantly on the rise. With today’s overly crowded airspace, it’s amazing but reassuring to know that air traffic control centers still succeed in guiding airplanes from point A to B in time, while ensuring safety. The way air traffic control centers manage this complex environment today increasingly inspires hospital managers and healthcare professionals. They too are more and more confronted with higher demands, more pressure on infrastructure capacity, and an increasingly growing amount of information that feeds critical decisions.

Air traffic control is a complex occupation, one that requires continuous coordination and strict procedures. Air traffic control operators need to coordinate the movements of thousands of aircrafts, keep them at safe distances from each other, direct them during takeoff and landing from airports, guide them around bad weather, and ensure that traffic flows smoothly with minimal delays. To ensure smooth operations, air traffic controllers need to meticulously monitor a variety of sources.

Flight activity information needs to be updated and synchronized continuously, so operators have a good overview of the traffic flow and airspace capacity. To avoid incidents, communication among operators, and between control tower and pilots needs to be clear and efficient.

Growing complexity in healthcare

The analogy between air traffic control and hospital operations has been made before, but it’s one that has become increasingly relevant over the years. Today’s healthcare faces growing complexity, with a rising number of patients due to aging population and easier access to healthcare. And just like the average air traveler, patients have become more outspoken and demanding, when it comes to the quality of service they receive.

At the same time, just like air traffic controllers have to make the most efficient use of our shrinking airspace, hospital managers are challenged to do more with less. Budgets are tight, while the cost of healthcare is on the rise.

The bigger picture

All these factors have forced hospitals to take a closer look at how patients experience their pre-hospital, in-hospital, and post-hospital journeys and at their key performance indicators. They are increasingly looking for the bigger picture, made up of different parameters and information sources that are important to monitor the patient flow and hospital operations. This has resulted in the development of the first healthcare operations centers, centralized command center-like locations from where entire hospital operations are managed.

It’s no surprise, that healthcare facilities have followed the example of air traffic control, a sector that has successfully managed the complexity of global air traffic for decades. The similarities between both sectors are clear. Just like air traffic, patient flows tend to be fluid, always changing and requiring a constant exercise of balancing demand and supply.

Critical information for critical decisions

Air traffic control operators monitor a wide variety of information sources to make critical decisions: flight schedules, aeronautical data, weather information, traffic forecasts, runway conditions, maps, and more. In healthcare operations centers, operators need to deal with a similar information variety: patient information, bed capacity, surgical procedure scheduling, but also public emergency services routes, access control & security, and building management information such as temperature and air conditioning performance.

In many ways, a healthcare operations center leverages the technology and systems hospitals already have in place today. What is challenging, is that hospital operators often need to rely on cluttered pieces of information, making it difficult to make well-informed choices to optimize patient flows. Especially when that hospital runs on multiple health systems, sites, and departments, it can be hard to keep track of operations.

Common operational picture for hospitals

Healthcare operations centers can bring all this disparate information together in one common operational picture, making it easier for operators to make crucial decisions. The ultimate goal of a healthcare operations center is to improve the organization’s performance. This is not so different from air traffic control, but in the case of hospital management, better performance can mean several things:

  • Allocating resources more efficiently: Work pressure is high among healthcare professionals. A better overview of resources can help hospital managers to assign staff to those treatments where help is needed most.
  • Monitoring and increasing bed capacity: The average hospital stay is an important metric that hospitals want to monitor closely. By having a better overview of bed capacity, operators can anticipate higher demand and prevent capacity bottlenecks.
  • Making better use of critical facilities: Just like air traffic controllers need to free airport slots for airplanes, hospital operators need to make sure that facilities for critical treatments, like surgery or chemotherapy, are available when needed. Conversely, from a business perspective, hospitals need to make sure that their costly critical infrastructure is used in the most optimal way.
  • Reducing waiting time: Air travelers don't like delays. Similarly, long waiting times are quite harmful for the entire patient experience. Every minute a patient needs to wait for treatment is a minute that cannot be spent on providing him with the care he needs.
  • Managing emergencies:  An unexpected, high influx of patients can put a high strain on a hospital's operations. Emergencies resulting from a pandemic outbreak or a natural disaster can be better managed with a clear overview of all available information. In times of emergencies, healthcare operations centers can be instrumental in distributing patients to different facilities or routing emergency vehicles coming from an incident.
  • Managing hospital surveillance: Hospitals use video surveillance extensively, especially for keeping patients and high-value items, like drugs, safe. Healthcare operations centers can monitor these camera feeds, coming from strategic positions like entries, corridors, waiting areas, and garages.
  • Monitoring ambulance dashcams: Healthcare operations centers can live stream roadside and driver-facing dashcam video feeds, in order to optimize their ambulance routes and instantly be notified of any vehicle collisions.
Improving the patient experience

A healthcare operations center allows to monitor every aspect of the hospital operations. Just like air traffic controllers, hospital operators are dealing with a complex environment where they need to process a variety of sources to keep capacity under control. That is why they need a clear, real-time overview of all the available information to make crucial decisions.

Ultimately, the healthcare operations center will contribute to improving the most essential KPI: patient satisfaction. By visualizing all parameters of patient care, hospital managers can optimize the patient journey and enable the best patient care.

About the author
Chris Klepacz
Strategic Alliances Manager

Chris has over 20 years of proven experience in alliance management, product management, marketing, and customer services in IT, advanced analytics, cloud, and AI focused industries. He has a passion for identifying, developing, and growing successful technology partnerships.