In the spring of 2020, to handle a surge of COVID-19 patients, Israel’s Sheba Medical Center created 97 new ICU beds in its underground parking lot practically overnight. The space was divided into “clean” and “contaminated” zones. Some staff worked in person in the latter, dressed in full protective gear, while others worked remotely from a control room in the nearby clean zone. Using multiple fixed cameras, interactive audio-video technologies and robots fitted with tablet computers to display their faces, these operators helped tend to the needs of patients and families and managed staff in the contaminated zone.
Confronting an unprecedented pandemic, the hospital was exploring a new way of operating an intensive care unit: remote care for patients who were physically inside its building. The goals were to limit staff exposure to pathogens, to reduce errors caused by working in bulky protective equipment and, perhaps most important, to see how well remote in-patient medicine could work on the ground.
Nirit Pilosof, an architect, researcher and former Azrieli Graduate Studies Fellow who had spent her career designing and studying health care facilities, had just weeks earlier begun postdoctoral research at Cambridge Digital Innovation (CDI), Hughes Hall and Cambridge Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. She joined an interdisciplinary team at CDI that was investigating the “Smart Hospital of the Future.” Her original plan had been to travel back and forth between the U.K. and Israel to research digital transformation in health care settings. But when lockdowns closed borders, she remained in Israel and took a front-row seat to perhaps the greatest acceleration of digital health care in our time.
Over six months, Pilosof observed Sheba’s COVID units and interviewed doctors, nurses, engineers, technology experts and the architectural design team. “They developed a whole new model of care,” she says.
It wasn’t perfect. The partial views provided by cameras, for instance, were never as good as seeing the whole scene while one was present in the space. No amount of smiling on a camera could replace a human touch. And there was not enough privacy for patients. But the exercise illuminated a future in which, with tweaks, remote care in its various iterations could become a major organizing feature of health care design.