Kaiser, UCD labs seek innovations in patient care, costs

Clinical coordinator David Buettner, left, trains paramedic student Bobby Blanco on a birthing simulator at UC Davis Medical Center last week. UCD also has a lifelike dummy that can blink, breathe and on cue mimic a full-blown heart attack – one of many innovations being tried to cut costs and save time.

In a warehouse tucked among rows of nondescript office buildings, medical wizardry is taking place.

A wand remotely controls beams of light, a robotic cart dashes through the hallways, and camera-equipped metal arms hang from ceilings, poised for surgical duty.

At Kaiser Permanente’s laboratory for innovations in San Leandro, emerging tools in medicine – as well as some low-tech problem-solving – are being put to the test.

The talking robotic cart, known as TUG, might not have the bedside manner of an affable doctor, but soon could be wheeling through the corridors of Kaiser hospitals in the Sacramento region.

So could hand-held electronic tablets that might serve as conduits for better medicine, bringing new tools to a patient’s bedside, said Sean Chai, senior technology manager at the Kaiser lab.

In the long run, saving time saves money, Chai said. “Everything we do here is geared toward saving money.”

There’s a national focus on taming health care costs and improving the quality of care. For institutions such as Kaiser and Sacramento’s UC Davis Medical Center, scouting innovations is critical for improving hospital efficiency and patient safety.

“We have to be better at delivering care more effectively and more efficiently. Technology will play a critical role,” said Dr. Javeed Siddiqui, associate medical director at the Center for Health and Technology at the UC Davis Medical Center.

As a teaching institution, UC Davis Medical Center is also at the forefront of technological advances, sometimes testing medical tools in real-life hospital settings.

At the Center for Virtual Care at the UC Davis Medical Center, lifelike dummies blink, breathe and on cue mimic a full-blown heart attack. They act as simulators to train the next generation of doctors. There are also robotic surgical arms that perform less-invasive surgeries, saving time for doctors in the operating room and patients in recovery wards.

“We’re focused on helping to develop the next generation of technologies,” said Betsy Bencken, a clinical instructor at the virtual care center.

The health system’s Innovation Center, housed within the Center for Health and Technology, serves as a think tank for expanding telemedicine to far-flung reaches, not just in the rural areas of California but around the globe.

At the Garfield Health Care Innovation Center in San Leandro, Kaiser assembles teams of doctors, nurses – sometimes volunteer Kaiser members – to test the latest in medical research.

Nothing is too minor, such as testing the healing properties of paint colors. To enhance patient convenience, one room is equipped with a wand that directs beams of overhead light.

And there’s TUG, the robotic courier that ferries supplies and equipment from one spot to the next. The robot already has been darting through the hallways of some Kaiser facilities in Southern California on a trial basis.

This summer, hand-held LCD monitors – which could extend the portability of electronic health records – will be tested at the Kaiser Sacramento Medical Center to help evaluate products that could become standard issue across the health system’s facilities.

The San Leandro center, which sprawls over 37,000 square feet, opened in June 2006 and is the only one of its kind in the Kaiser health system. It is equipped with patient rooms, mock-ups of workstations, operating rooms – and a living room equipped with gadgets that turn the home into a control center for personal health.

“By 2015, the home will become the hub of care,” Chai predicted.

Home-based equipment will connect a patient at home to the doctor, who can monitor vital signs and other health care metrics.

But it’s not always about high-tech gadgetry. Useful changes often come after simple brainstorming, said Sherry Fry, operations specialist for the Kaiser facility.

A case in point: How to keep nurses charged with administering medication from being interrupted during their rounds.

There were no bells and whistles. At first it was just a neon-green vest, to be worn while on duty. But the vest wasn’t exactly a fashion statement. In the end, the team settled on a simple white sash to be worn during rounds, meant to deliver the message: “Don’t bother me.”