Following on from Ambulance Design for Patient Safety, Roger Coleman of RCA and Dr Sue Hignett of Loughborough University, proposed a new area of research to the EPSRC: meeting the longer-term challenges of taking healthcare to the patient as set out in the 2005 Department of Health report of that name. The EPSRC organised an intensive five-day workshop on the subject, which resulted in a number of new research collaborations. The Smart Pods project is one of these. It explores longer-term challenges in urgent and emergency healthcare delivery and offers radical and innovative solutions.

The Ambulance Service has changed significantly in recent years. Paramedics and nurses have received additional and advanced training to become Emergency Care Practitioners (ECPs), qualified to assess, treat and discharge patients with urgent care problems in their local community, rather than simply taking them to a hospital Accident and Emergency Department for treatment. Research shows that ECPs are effective in their new role, reducing hospital visits and achieving high levels of patient satisfaction.

However, the equipment used by this new professional group has not evolved to match its capabilities, so 21st century urgent care is being delivered by 21st century professionals using 20th century technologies. By improving the equipment, vehicles and communications available to the ECPs, urgent care delivery could become still more successful. By taking the treatment to the patient in this way, there is the potential to reduce the number of wasted journeys and the number of attendees at hospital A&E departments, whilst improving Patient Safety and the well-being of staff.

Smart Pods is a two-year project that will research and put forward a number of outline design options for a multi-level system to respond to a range of 999, GP and other calls, typically to treat soft tissue injuries, minor head injuries, elderly falls, chest pain and minor respiratory illness. The multi-level Smart Pods could include: vehicle/docking systems, treatment (vehicle) units for a range of defined services, and portable treatment packages of equipment and consumables. A standardised system will help paramedics to respond quickly and efficiently when faced with major emergencies, and simplify procurement for healthcare trusts.