With patients spending less time in hospital and more time at home or in long-term care establishments, the future is bright for medical bed manufacturers able to deliver the innovative solutions that are needed to successfully reshape healthcare delivery. If they get their strategy right, makers of smart beds – which collect and analyze patient data to provide actionable insights – can capitalize on the optimal market conditions being generated by the changing face of care.

The future of patient monitoring

My advice? Think modularity, think cost-efficiency and think about developing service-based value propositions in tune with the desire for getting patients out of hospital more quickly. For the medical bed to deliver on its promise and become a key component of the new healthcare delivery universe, exponents need to put strong partnerships in place. Tie-ups with experts in digital solutions, algorithmic analysis and digital security are all vital to a successful competitive strategy.

Why is the time right for smart beds?

The number of hospital beds per capita in the developed world has been declining for 20 years, along with the average length of stay. Healthcare reforms have provoked a shift away from hospital-centric models in response to the dual challenge of a larger, older population with complex care needs and the greater availability of more expensive medical treatments. As hospitals evolve into highly-specialized centers for the rapid treatment of serious and acute conditions, post-intervention and chronic care is being shifted elsewhere; to nursing and care homes, smaller specialist care centers, or the patient’s home.

Martin Ričl, Creative & Clinical Research Manager at global medical bed supplier Linet Group SE, sums it up pithily: “There is a big push to get people out of hospitals because it’s expensive to keep them there.”

On one hand, this trend could set warning bells ringing for bed manufacturers facing declining demand from their established customer base. But opportunities abound for those alive to the need for cost-efficient solutions that shorten stays in hospital. High patient turnover presents an attractive growth opportunity for companies able to combine smart beds with reusable and disposable sensor technologies. Leaf Healthcare’s wearable sensor that monitors patients to prevent pressure ulcers is an example of a consumable sensor which capitalizes on high turnover. Quite simply, higher patient throughput means more sensors sold, which sits well with a service-based value proposition.

Smart beds currently sit in a niche, with limited market penetration caused by the restraining effect of the large installed base of traditional medical beds and the high price of fully integrated products. This challenge can be overcome by offering a value proposition which enables institutions to upgrade their existing beds without the need for large investments.

The notion of adding modular, ‘smart add-on solutions’ is key to a successful business strategy. Low-tech wearable, disposable sensors – like the Leaf example – could be offered as part of a service-based value proposition. Unobtrusive sensing technologies such as optical, acoustic, and millimeter-wave for lidar, which can still deliver the necessary accuracy, are attractive to both patients and healthcare professionals.

According to global medical device specialist Arjo, a bed can be used for up to 20 years, thus limiting the opportunity for traditional capital expenditure sales of fully integrated beds. “As the installed base is huge, we believe that a key success factor is the ability to de-couple the smart features from the bed,” says Arjo’s Jörgen Jönsson. His colleague, Ola Lundström, adds that the industry is looking towards using wearables from the consumer market to harvest patient-data: “We believe that consumer wearables as a data source can be a strong complement to the more medically focused equipment. The technology is already out there.” 

The future, then, will belong to those who offer not beds per se, but the ability to upgrade an institution’s installed base with specific smart features.

Shaping solutions for the new care ecosystems

Increasing competition among care homes and other long-term facilities is driving the need for both cost-efficiency and competitive differentiation through care-enabling technology. Smart bed capability that minimizes human effort is a perfect fit for environments where frail patients tend to suffer from a range of comorbidities. With penetration currently low, there is an opportunity to steal a march with advanced technical features that optimize both efficiency and care. Martin Ričl certainly doesn’t underestimate the potential. “I see most growth in the future coming from the nursing home and senior care segment,” he says.

The ‘patient hotel’ model, where people are monitored remotely during their recuperation, provides an attractive emerging customer segment. Smart bed technology will need to balance the required remote monitoring with pleasing aesthetic design and intuitive user interfaces. These qualities are essential for a hotel-style setting where non-clinical staff and the patients themselves interact with monitoring devices.

Beyond the care home, and even the patient hotel, is the prospect of people remaining at home in smart surroundings fitted with non-invasive sensors facilitating remote monitoring of the individual, their physiological biomarkers and the environment itself. Such digital care ecosystems will communicate with remote healthcare providers, caregivers and family to free patients and the elderly from institutionalized living. Well-designed, smart bed solutions are perfectly positioned to play a key enabling role in the transition to these homes of the future. Further diversification opportunities will arise for medical bed manufacturers able to add smart chairs, sofas and other furniture to their product portfolio.

The importance of data analytics and security

Digital solutions based on algorithmic data analysis will become core planks in the value proposition of successful bed manufacturers. Strategic partnerships between current players and data analytics firms include Hill-Rom with Microsoft Azure and Arjo with Next Step Dynamics. They illustrate the heightened R&D activity around translating sensor-generated data into useful, actionable insights for users. 

Digital security, a key concern for healthcare professionals and patients, will be another important area of focus. Systems architecture design of healthcare facilities must minimize vulnerabilities and mitigate data security risk from all angles. Savvy bed manufacturers will need to partner with secure network providers to ensure their offering is comprehensively safe.

A time for strategic partnerships and acquisitions

We are likely to see more strategic partnerships and acquisitions as traditional market participants seek to innovate by tapping into the innovative energy of smaller, independent companies. As a core component of healthcare, the bed is the perfect hub for many tasks, such as communicating to a Hospital Information System (HIS), performing data analysis as a component of a future neural network and performing inductive charging of patient-worn and other sensors.

The large installed base of hospital and care-home customers provides the ideal opportunity for transitioning to a service model by offering beds and consumables as a Product-as-a-Service (PaaS) value proposition. As part of that, smart beds will offer patient analytics to enable cost-effective wards to communicate with the HIS and Electronic Hospital Records (EHR) and alert professionals to the health status of patients and the level of care required. Arjo’s Ola Lundström describes his vision: “In the future, companies need to become more like a service supplier; selling capacity instead of capex.”

The need for sensor-fed predictive analytics is overwhelming in all customer segments. Operators who can offer solutions which collect patient data and feed into a predictive patient management solution to optimize workflows and facilitate bed turnover times will prevail. As the future bed becomes increasingly sophisticated, it will become an even more critical component of a digital services infrastructure that helps professionals run more cost-efficient operations without sacrificing the health of patients.

Evelyne Priestman
Consultant, Market Strategy