Healthcare News & Insights

Out in front: Using real-time technology to get ahead of hospital crises

Hospital emergencies, like natural disasters and shootings, are a part of the world we live in. The key to effectively respond to these events lies in the ability to leverage technologies so executives and administrators have real-time data to react to. In this guest post, Ed Monan, director, corporate security sales at a company that specializes in artificial intelligence and machine learning, offers insight into how real-time information can be used to make fact-based decisions that are required to save people’s lives.


By all accounts, it could have been worse: When a gunman attacked staff at Mercy Hospital in Chicago last November, police were on the scene in a matter of minutes and killed the assailant in a shootout in the facility’s emergency room. Three innocent people died that day – a physician, a pharmacy resident and one of the responding officers – but dozens of others survived the ordeal thanks, in part, to steps taken on the ground. The hospital had conducted active-shooter drills in the recent past, and those present reacted exactly as they’d been trained: They barricaded themselves and their patients in their rooms, and they hid until it was safe to come out.

So, what, if anything, might have been done differently? Moreover, what can other organizations learn from Mercy’s tragedy that might help them in similar events?

One place to start in the search for possible answers is with the hospital’s communication ability across the organization. As the gunman went on his rampage, according to reports, the only people with an accurate sense of what was happening were those in the immediate vicinity and his direct line of fire. No one else had access to relevant, real-time information – and that just added confusion to an extremely dangerous situation.

The real benefits of relevant, real-time information

In a world that’s teeming with digital information, the challenge – in an emergency – involves focusing on pertinent facts. Whether it’s emergency room staff under attack by a gunman or an entire facility facing a Category 4 hurricane, the key to an effective rescue or response entails gathering reams of information and distilling it for relevant and actionable insights.

The problem for many organizations is that actionable insights can be hard to come by when the required information isn’t available instantaneously. You can’t possibly tell your ER team where they should hide without knowing where the shooter is about to go next.

The good news is, thanks to recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, there are now new solutions that promise to help: Technologies that can harness public information streams and present them to those who need them in real time.

Real-time information technologies leverage publicly available data like social media, blog posts, the dark web, and sensors such as earthquake data to offer insights around an event as it happens. Combined with AI capabilities to detect and distill information at great scale, such technologies can provide security directors and emergency managers with situational updates from individuals on the scene. That real-time information can then be used to make the fact-based decisions that are often required to save people’s lives.

A time when ‘real time’ increasingly matters

For anyone at the helm of a high-functioning healthcare organization, it’s easy to assume that they’re ready for almost any type of crisis. But hospital shootings and natural disasters are both on the rise, making that kind of thinking exceptionally risky.

One report published by Brown University, for example, found the annual number of hospital-based shootings in the United States climbed from fewer than five in 2000 to more than 20 in 2015. “The incidence of hospital shootings has risen in the past decade and a half to become a monthly occurrence,” that report concluded. Active-shooter incidents in hospitals remain relatively rare (only four took place between 2016 and 2017), but as the incident at Mercy Hospital illustrates, when they do occur they often include multiple casualties – even when law enforcement arrive on the scene right away.

Similarly, when it comes to natural disasters, one only needs to look to the recent fires in California – or hurricanes Irma and Harvey on the Atlantic Coast – to see how such events can push a hospital to the breaking point. These and other calamities, noted a 2018 report in Kaiser Health News, are increasingly “more severe and elaborate than most hospitals … are prepared for, and experts say it is time to bring facilities up to speed.”

The standard approach to getting “up to speed,” of course, has historically entailed everything from conducting on-site, active-shooter drills to practicing whole-hospital evacuations. But now, many agree, such efforts aren’t enough. Organizations must also learn to take advantage of the latest emergency technologies, including those that provide them with real-time information.

One expert analysis of the emergency response at Mercy Hospital noted best practices for responders in such cases include using communications systems that specifically address active-shooter scenarios. Such a system, the author wrote, “could have kept the staff informed about the location of the shooter” and potentially reduced the “general confusion” on the scene.

It’s hard to determine how a robust set of tools that provided enhanced situational awareness would have affected the outcome at Mercy Hospital. Chances are, because the shooting happened so fast, multiple people still would have died. But it’s also likely that the chaos would have been minimized – that the scene would have seemed more under control with responders fully informed every second of the way.

It’s impossible to know for sure exactly what would have changed on that day last November if real-time information was available to those on site. What we can say, however, is that it only would have helped. And extra help is what you need in a hospital emergency.

Ed Monan is the director, corporate security sales at Dataminr. He previously supported a variety of U.S. Government agencies, most recently the Department of Homeland Security.

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