The integration of more-developed technologies into medical beds has become significant resulting in features like multi-language speech synthesis for patient-caregiver communication and speech-recognition functions for their control.
An essential part of the healthcare environment, the medical bed is also used as a measure of its reach, its efficiency (for occupancy and bed-management strategisation), development (representing funding and investment in healthcare systems), and diversity. For the case of automated, electric devices such as these, technological and contextual factors have resulted in significant changes to their appearance and their expected functionality over the past few years, while retaining original features that have guided the first exponents of this medical device. It is, however, in the twenty-first century, that an unprecedented, innovative stage in the development of these devices has peaked, taking advantage of all technological means at the disposal of developers, and resulting in new vectors of added value for these products, renaming them as smart medical beds.
Over the past years, trends and most relevant innovations to medical beds have been notably related to design aspects, referred to materials (more hygienic and resistant), population-specific models, ergonomic manual commands, and morphological changes associated to updated mobility-options (elevation, front-back and lateral inclination, etc.), updated side-rails, patient-support structures, castors (fifth castor for enhanced transport), while embedded with the new technologies. In the current competitive scenario, aesthetic and comprehensive design features stand out as a differentiating factor between products. These features, prominently represented by the side-rails and panels, also serve in adapting the beds to different environments and populations.
Environmental control units. Directed to the treatment of subjects with temporary or permanently-restricted mobility, medical beds benefit from past and current accessibility inventions and developments, both in terms of their actuation-means, as well as in terms of their user-interfaces. Among these solutions, environmental control units (ECU) currently stand out as available additions to the medical bed environment, controlling some medical beds. These systems are among the most used accessibility-technologies by patients with spinal cord injury. Basic inputs to ECUs include accessibility switches, sip-puff controls and pressure sensors, and their impact on the quality of life of patients. Over the past decades, this concept has been considered by research solutions for healthcare facilities, with new inventions aiming at supplementing bed control. Speech control, for instance, is considered and implemented on a limited number of cases, as an accessory ECU or incorporated into some devices. Another example is the development of brain-computer interfaces, powerful technologies for the aid of critically impaired patients, which are seen as possible inputs for ECUs and medical beds with basic actuating functions. This promising technology, however, presents specific difficulties and is under development, limiting its current reach.
Integration of information-technologies. Surrounding the medical bed, the integration of information-technologies into the patient-care environment has changed the way patient-information and treatments are handled. As medical beds become smarter, interaction with these smart environments becomes a possibility. A growing trend looks to change the experience of the healthcare environment for patients, providing new means of communication and entertainment at their reach, particularly aimed at patients with restricted mobility (acute, recovering, and long-term patients). These proposals integrate connectivity and a higher control over the environment, while including informative resources (tutorials etc.) concerning different conditions. Even when not including control over the bed itself, these interactive patient-care systems may integrate a touchscreen through adjustable stands. The development of personalized healthcare and medical devices for injuries and chronic diseases has been deemed as one of the most impactful and feasible challenges to be tackled by biomedical engineers in the near future, and the evolution of medical beds and devices in the immediate surroundings of the patient is instrumental to these advances. The core of these projects stems from a thorough vision concerning the patient’s experience of this environment, valuing the possibility of empowering patients on their own care, through a more fluid interaction with their surroundings.
Monitoring in-patients’ health. Sensors could track and monitor patients from the moment they arrive in a hospital – or even in the home before that – with real-time data automatically added to patient records without the need for nurses to take readings or update charts. Hospital beds are the first choice for sensors placed in the closest proximity to the patient. For example, to avoid pressure ulcers from staying in bed for too long, manufacturers develop pressure sensors which can allow the mattress to intelligently redistribute force to minimize the occurrence of these types of ulcers.
Medical beds have changed from technological, aesthetic, and functional perspectives. Smart medical beds have emerged in the past decades as integrated solutions for patient care, assistance and monitoring, based on a comprehensive, multidisciplinary design process. Powered by a surge in user technological-awareness, the acceptance of new technologies into smart beds and accessories will likely continue to grow in developed regions, reaching more complex, upgraded, and even bold iterations in the near future. The future of medical beds will be thus shaped by the continued, conscious supplement of technologies into the healthcare environment. As for patients and environments, research is heading in the way of providing even further functionality and integration with the medical bed.
Technologies implemented into smart medical beds may, at this point, result in derived, low-cost upgrades to other devices, like manually-operated beds, which less-developed regions can benefit from. Research is also continuously promoting novel or updated integrations of technology into this family of devices. It is expected that these changes will continue to spread into further automation and design adaptations, with the smart bed becoming the heart of the smart patient-care environment of the future.