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Pod treatment: Ambulances go modular

  • Story Highlights
  • British researchers looking at modular ambulances
  • Vehicles would bolt on appropriate pod depending on nature of emergency
  • Aim is to treat more patients at the scene, fewer in hospital
  • Researchers seeking expertise from food delivery, roadside recovery firms
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By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- What do roadside recovery and home-delivered groceries have in common? They're both inspiring new approaches to paramedic and ambulance care.

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Pod systems may increase the number of cases paramedics can handle.

A team of British researchers and medics is looking at shifting emergency treatment from hospitals further into communities.

This move was sparked by the arrival of a new group of health professionals. Known as Emergency Care Practitioners, these health workers are part paramedics, part emergency room staff. Dr Sue Hignett of Loughborough University, who is co-ordinating the research, told CNN: "They take emergency and urgent care out into the community. At the moment they tend to be working with existing vehicles but they're providing a different service so they need different equipment."

The researchers are currently looking at practical logistics in existing vehicles. "For example," said Dr Hignett, "if you have to resuscitate someone in the vehicle, can the paramedic and the patient get into an appropriate position so that you're likely to have a successful outcome, i.e. can you reach the equipment that you need to reach in a timely and safe way, in both a stationary vehicle and in a moving vehicle?"

But once their audit of current vehicles is complete, the team will look at providing a more flexible, far-reaching service.

"The culture within the ambulance service has been to treat and transport," Dr Hignett explained. "We want to move towards treating and discharging, so patients don't get taken into hospital and end up waiting for what may be a minor condition."

And that's where the breakdown service comes in. The team are talking to other distribution and service providers to find out how they work, and Britain's Automobile Association, which fixes over 80% of breakdowns at the roadside, is one.

Another is upscale supermarket Waitrose, which uses a modular "pod" system in its delivery vehicles. Dr Hignett says, "We got very excited when we were talking about this because you can configure vehicles differently to have a different response."

These response vehicles, more advanced than ambulances, could show up with appropriate equipment depending on the nature of the medical emergency. She continued: "You could have a diagnostic unit that went out, or you could have a minor surgery unit."

And treatment need not end at the roadside. The research team's vision extends to pods within pods: modular add-ons within response vehicles that can be taken into people's homes. "You don't always take the patients to the vehicle," Hignett told CNN. "You can also provide the treatment and the care in the patient's home or wherever they happen to be."

"Then you need the next level down pod, which is portable, and the appropriate equipment consumables to provide the treatment response," she continued. "Maybe you'd want to set up an ICU tent in someone's front room rather than move them."

Dr Hignett says that once the emergency has been dealt with by the response team, patients could be monitored remotely in their own homes. "You wouldn't necessarily have a clinical practitioner there," she explained. "You could hook them up to some equipment linked in to some telemedicine systems. You're moving towards smart homes actually supporting that level of care."

The research team have collaborated with Professor Roger Coleman, a specialist in inclusive design at Britain's Royal College of Art, whose team have come up with design renditions of how the pod-based response vehicles might look.

It's too early to say whether this new approach will be cost-effective, but fewer hospital visits and more home-based care is bound to be popular with patients. And Dr Hignett and her colleagues believe that, while not every emergency injury can be anticipated, most can.

"Once you start to future-scope, you realize there could be potentially 30 to 40 percent of people who don't actually need to go to an emergency room," she said.

The researchers believe that figure could be increased even further, and far more patients could be treated at the roadside.

"If you look at the spectrum of calls, you won't be able to necessarily tailor the response to all calls as some will be unusual and less frequent," Hignett told CNN.

"But you should be able to respond to the majority of calls with appropriate vehicles and pods providing care and treatment without having to transport patients into a hospital." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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