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OSF employee pitches pilot project for a smarter hospital room

OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center

An OSF employee is receiving support from the medical system to help develop an idea that could ease the hospital experience for all sorts of patients.

Katie Willerton is an occupational therapist at OSF Saint. Francis Medical Center in Peoria. Specifically, she works with patients who have severe spinal cord injuries, which led her to an idea.

These injuries mean patients lose function in their hands and arms. So, it can be very difficult to get any sort of assistance to their hospital room.

“Our current call light system, you have to be able to use your hands,” Willerton said. “You have to be able to grasp and pinch to activate the call light and call for help from your nurse.”

That help can be a wide variety of things, from closing blinds, to changing a television channel, to helping in a medical emergency. So, Willerton sees a need to make sure this is accessible to any patient.

“I thought to myself ‘well, there’s voice-activated stuff on the market,’” she said. “How can we get that into a patient’s room, to help with ease of accessing your environment.”

With voice-activated technology, patients could access all of these services without having to strain, or even lift a finger. Willerton started by reaching out to the Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center at OSF. From there, she learned implementing voice-activated technology in a hospital room is possible, but tricky due to medical privacy laws.

“It’s not like you can just go to a hardware store and get voice-activated systems that are already on the market,” Willerton said. “Because there’s so many privacy concerns that we have in health care. Everything that we use has to have that hospital level compliance with privacy.”

Willerton, along with Information Technology and maintenance experts at Jump, have been exploring options to find the devices that would fit a hospital’s needs.

While the idea was formed while working with patients with spinal injuries, Willerton sees potential applications for all kinds of patients who require a stay in the hospital.

“Sometimes a call light is dropped on the floor, becomes tangled up in sheets, gets tangled up in bedding,” she said. “Patients can’t reach it for various reasons, whether they’ve had major surgery or it’s too hard for that person to bend over to pick something up. Broken bones, severe arthritis, all of those things that make using the current call light system challenging.”

The idea is still in its infancy and it will be a long time before there could potentially be working smart rooms in hospitals. But Willerton’s idea has the backing and support of OSF HealthCare that presented her an “Innovator of the Year” award this week.

“The technology is there and everybody has some smart device in their home,” Willerton said. “They’re already using it. So it would be just wonderful to get that into the hospital setting and make it easier for patients.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.