New simulation tool will help hospitals live with COVID-19

Hospitals across NSW will be prepared for future COVID-19 waves thanks to a sophisticated modelling tool developed by the Sax Institute.

The tool simulates the movement of patients through 25 hospitals in NSW during a surge in COVID-19 cases. It shows the impact of COVID-19 across the hospital, including emergency departments and intensive care units as well as on the number of surgeries performed and elective surgery waitlists.

The Sax Institute’s Decision Analytics team worked with the NSW Health Agency for Clinical Innovation on the project over eight months, bringing together a large amount of data from 25 hospitals and consulting with clinicians and hospital managers. Discrete event simulation technology – which models a system over time as a series of separate events – was then used to investigate different scenarios.

Multiple COVID-19 scenarios were tested with varying levels of patient numbers and severity of illness. Hospital responses to these scenarios were also tested, to see how the impact of a COVID-19 wave could be minimised by reducing or outsourcing elective surgeries, or increasing the hospital beds available to patients leaving the emergency department. 

Christine Whittall, Director of Innovation (Modelling) at the Sax Institute, says that this modelling tool is so valuable given the current pressure on the health system.

“We’re really excited to help hospitals make decisions about where to place limited resources that have the biggest impact on patient care.”

This ambitious project builds on the modelling work done by the Institute during the first two years of the pandemic.

“Previously we had focused on understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the capacity of intensive care units, but now we’re examining the flow of patients, both with and without COVID-19, through the whole hospital,” Christine says.

The power of the technology lies in its ability to provide a systems-level view, explains Christine. “If you’re tweaking one thing in a hospital system, it can be hard to understand what the flow-on effects are,” she says.

“A discrete event simulation tool like this allows you to see the impact of resourcing decisions on the entire hospital. If decisions are rigorously tested in a virtual environment first, hospitals can respond quickly and effectively when real-world issues arise.”

The value of this tool goes beyond COVID-19 contexts, as there are numerous issues affecting patient-flow in hospitals. “We’re really excited about future opportunities,” says Christine. “You could use this tool to investigate issues like ambulance ramping or to plan for patient surges from seasonal flu.”