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Healthcare Systems Turn To AI To Help Ease Strain On Hospitals In Massachusetts

In Massachusetts' increasingly fragile hospital system, healthcare executives and the commercial real estate teams they work with are trying to find new ways to alleviate the pressures they face.

While the spotlight has been on the failing Steward Health Care and the stress the company has put on the state's healthcare system, other healthcare operators and landlords are leaning on technology to help ease pressures that staff shortages, the ripple effects of the pandemic and the aging population have had on hospitals and medical office buildings.

Landlords and healthcare operators who spoke at Bisnow's Boston Healthcare Summit, held Wednesday at the Westin Copley Hotel, said that in addition to campus expansions, artificial intelligence and other technologies have helped make taking care of patients easier as healthcare systems look to ease these pressures. 

JLL's Chris McCauley, Dartmouth Health's David Duncan, Boston Children's Hospital's Dick Argys, Page's Nilay Deshmukh, Suffolk Construction's Joel Perry and Salto Systems' Kyle Pfeiffer.

"Those things are coming, and in a way I'm being optimistic," Page Associate principal Nilay Deshmukh said about AI. "It will help to keep people to stay home and it will probably reduce the stress on the healthcare system just off these AI innovations that are coming."

Massachusetts hospitals are facing a capacity crisis.

Across the state, there is a backup of 1,000 or more patients on any given day who are not reaching the next level of care, leaving them stuck occupying beds they no longer need, according to Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association. Additionally, 500 or more patients are experiencing behavioral health crises each day and are waiting for a bed to become available. 

In January, Massachusetts General Brigham announced it was dealing with an ongoing "capacity disaster" status, Boston 25 News reported. The hospital had been operating in a "Code Help" status, which occurs when beds and hallway stretchers are full, for the past 16 months.

On April 2, Steward closed its New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton, reported. The hospital had 39 rehabilitation beds, 119 chronic care beds and outpatient services that were all important to the state's healthcare ecosystem.

Earlier this week, Tufts Medicine laid off 174 employees due to its financial straits, the Boston Globe reported. Other major systems like Beth Israel Lahey Health and MGB also reported major operating losses in the last year at $132.4M and $95M, respectively.

Other hospitals have been working to ensure they can keep up with the demand that they've been seeing.

David Duncan, vice president of real estate at Dartmouth Health, said the organization has been looking to bring on more artificial intelligence work in its at-home care, a program the organization has been trying to expand recently due to staff shortages and long wait times.

Redgate's Jennifer Sutherby, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center's Greg Wilmot, Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center's Charles Murphy, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Wendy Gettleman, HDR's Jessica Stebbins and Wise Construction's Eric Libby.

"Nobody's taking patients. So, you know, every day we have 100 patients that shouldn't be in the hospital," Duncan said. "We're really trying to grow our home health network and bring more technology and AI into that environment, but it's also a security situation because we fear more and more that the home is not safe to go in."

The Boston Children's Hospital — which has taken on several expansion projects, including a new satellite service in Weymouth, another expansion project in Peabody and an ambulatory service center in Needham — has begun to look into AI as it opens these new facilities.

"We started to use predictive analytics for no-shows or cancellations, for when to send out reminders," said Dick Argys, executive vice president at Boston's Children's Hospital.

Though the organization doesn't have a detailed plan for artificial intelligence yet, Argys said there have been serious talks about how to intentionally bring the technology into everyday operations and the patient experience.

"We want to be very thoughtful about what our plan is for AI because we have people coming every day that want to develop something in their specific areas so AI can help them," Argys said.

Duncan said that as institutions look to utilize more AI and technology, they need to plan how they will incorporate it into the design of their building to ensure there will be enough space.

"It doesn't just sit up in the cloud. It requires space, it requires equipment," Duncan said. "We all have to, from a practical sense, understand that it's coming, but then what does it mean for most facilities?"

Artificial intelligence is also helping construction firms that are tasked with building new hospitals, expansions or renovation projects for these healthcare systems.

"I think that the biggest gains that we're going to see from AI, in short terms, is really during pre-construction," said Joel Perry, vice president at Suffolk Construction. "There's technology that exists today, AI in the housing industry, where there's links between the design model and prefabrication. How can we leverage that?"

For smaller healthcare companies, finding ways to expand their operations can also help to get some of the pressure off of bigger neighboring institutions.

Remedy Medical Properties' Joe Magliochetti, MLL Capital's Kyle O'Connor, Thomas Park Investments' EJ Rumpke and Newmark's Michael Greeley.

Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center CEO Charles Murphy said the center sends a lot of its patients to Boston Medical Center for specialty surgeries and procedures. Murphy said he wants to alleviate some of this pain through new capital projects that would help keep patients from needing to go to these overburdened facilities.

"The better we can do, the more throughput we have, it just makes BMC's life a little bit easier," Murphy said. "They're tapped out like most hospitals are throughout Boston and around the country."

In August, the organization was approved for a 42K SF redevelopment of three city-owned parcels at 8 Old Road, 14 Ellington St. and 16 Ellington St. in Dorchester. The three-story development is planned to be a health center with ground-floor community space. The facility will be the third one in the organization's system.

East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, which employs 1,800 people and sees more than 140,000 people each year, announced a rebrand to NeighborHealth in March as the organization has gone on to serve more than just East Boston, the Globe reported.

With this rebrand, the organization's CEO, Greg Wilmot, said he hopes the additional capacity will boost its primary care business and help to address the demand issue across the city.

"We are certainly focused on building capacity in primary care," Wilmot said. "For all of us that have been trying to get a medical appointment, you're waiting very long for that. Even for a physical, it's anywhere between 12 to 18 months."

EBNHC also runs the state's only satellite emergency facility, which was built as the only emergency department independent of an inpatient hospital. Wilmot said the facility is the fourth-busiest emergency department in the city.

"What that has allowed us to do is relieve the burden on the other emergency departments throughout the city," Wilmot said.