Is a smart ambulance the future of emergency care

Author: Rachel Engel

Emergency medical care is a continuous battle against the clock. A shrinking EMS  workforce is looking for ways to reduce response times and delays in patient transfer and increase the quality of emergency medical services (EMS) patient care. According to CBS News, a 2022 American Ambulance Association study of employee turnover found that 39% of part-time EMT and 55% of part-time paramedic positions went unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates. The smart ambulance, a wirelessly connected vehicle with enhanced routing capabilities, sensors and tools, could help alleviate some of the industry’s pain points. 

With nearly 25% of the population expected to be over age 65 by 2060 leading to an increase in the need for medical care, adding smart ambulance technology to EMS vehicle fleets can yield positive effects in both areas.

According to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS), “The EMS worker shortage is unlikely to ease any time soon, but with better data driving strategic resource management and more efficient patient movement, EMS providers can minimize its effects.”  Additionally, JEMS cites, “Armed with the right data, EMS administrators can make better decisions about how to best utilize their scarce resources.”

Response time is a critical metric; it hinges on the EMS system as a bridge to the highest levels of medical care:

  • How fast can EMS crews arrive on scene?

  • What is the safest and speediest route to the nearest medical facility?

  • How soon after arriving at the emergency department can an emergent patient be transferred to hospital care? 

In a smart ambulance, innovative technology and reliable connectivity bring advanced medical care to the patient. The ideal, futuristic ambulance is designed to streamline emergency care for all parties—the patient, the provider and the receiving medical facility.

Learn how this innovative emergency vehicle can improve patient outcomes while alleviating burnout in an industry facing a decades-long provider shortage.

What technology is available in a smart ambulance?

Ambulance technology has advanced significantly in the past decade, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which forced the healthcare industry to adapt in innovative ways, such as with increased telehealth or mobile-integrated healthcare models.

A smart ambulance incorporates that innovation, along with several other technological tools designed to streamline patient care, provider efficiency, ambulance inventory and maintenance.

Virtual doctor interactions

Enhanced ambulance technology can provide patients and paramedics with near-real-time expertise on the scene, allowing doctors access to virtually help diagnose an ambulance patient in transit. This ambulance technology essentially turns the vehicle into a mobile clinic, giving patients peace of mind while also potentially saving EMS providers from making unnecessary transports for patients who can be treated on scene.

These technologically advanced vehicles use either 4G LTE or 5G connectivity and are equipped with vehicle-mounted positioning terminals, video communication and multi-monitor acquisition equipment, and remote video communication.

RFID technology

These smart ambulances can also incorporate radio-frequency identification (RFID), a system that allows providers to track medical equipment, ensuring all necessary life-saving supplies are on board. Using RFID tags, crews can tag items like IV bags, ventilators and other gear, allowing providers to use an RFID reader to quickly see what needs to be restocked or replaced after a call. The RFID tag can also monitor medical supply expiration dates and the need for equipment maintenance, reducing the time it takes to restock emergency vehicles at the station prior to the next call.

GPS traffic monitoring

Another advantage of smart ambulances is the innovative use of GPS, which uses near real-time data from local traffic agencies. The data is pulled to the rig's GPS system, which updates the planned route based on the information to avoid traffic, road construction and other variables that slow response times. This data is continually updated and monitored, allowing providers to make near-real-time decisions while en route. A small adjustment, such as an impromptu street change to prevent a delay in arriving at the hospital, can make a difference in the patient's life.

Hospital compatibility and communication

As providers work in near real-time with clinicians on board a smart ambulance, the patient's data is immediately transferred to the receiving facility, allowing emergency department staff to prepare for the ambulance's arrival. Particularly in emergency cases, providers can more quickly transfer patients from pre-hospital care to a medical facility, eliminating the time needed to update hospital staff on the patient's condition during the ambulance ride.

The impact of a smart ambulance on the EMS system

The benefit of a smart ambulance's features boils down to efficiency. These modern vehicles are geared toward making the EMS response process more streamlined, with a focus on data fluidity, whether that's gleaning clinical data through near-real-time virtual reality calls with on-site clinicians, transferring data to receiving facilities or monitoring equipment for fast rig restocking. Using these technologies can help provide faster, smarter pre-hospital healthcare.

As the EMS industry focuses on increasing recruitment, including smart ambulances in emergency fleets can allow agencies to fully utilize current personnel. These vehicles give them the tools to efficiently treat patients both on scene and en route to medical facilities and limit the time needed for administrative and inventory tasks. Even the updated use of GPS to find the quickest route to and from a patient is oriented toward an optimized, labor-saving response.

From a patient standpoint, a smart ambulance response offers a deeper level of care than current EMS ambulance crews can provide, incorporating clinician-patient video inside the rig and ensuring hospital staff is prepared for their arrival.

As technology advances, smart ambulance operations will continue to be evaluated and improved to meet healthcare providers' and patients' needs.

Network requirements for futuristic ambulance technology

Providers' abilities to use near-real-time information to make patient decisions is the ultimate definition of connectivity. A cellular network, which isn't limited to access points in the same way a Wi-Fi connection is, offers first responders access to near-real-time data—as long as they have a reliable network provider.

Fast, real-time connectivity is critical for the future of healthcare. It can enable and accelerate applied artificial intelligence, process automation and other clinical innovations to help the industry achieve enterprise intelligence. With the right infrastructure, health systems can transform into a unified healthcare system resulting in simplified operations, controlled costs, and improved clinician and patient experiences. This can include replacing legacy equipment and disparate systems for a unified network, migrating securely within the cloud.  

Learn how Verizon is investing in healthcare technology to better serve providers and communities across the country with the latest advancements in digital intelligence, patient experience, security and remote care.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.