Hospitals spend millions of dollars on the most advanced imaging devices and robotic surgeons. Yet patients who don't need specialized care will never see that equipment.
For common procedures, patients are more likely to need help with the daily challenges of hospital stays: taking medication, treating wounds, going to the bathroom.
To accommodate the typical patient, local hospitals are adopting relatively simple, but practical high-tech solutions to everyday problems.
Just as now-common adjustable electric beds make it easier to reposition patients, these innovations should make life a little more comfortable for hospital guests.
Cari Bryant's two daughters used to "go ballistic" when they had to undergo a CT scan. They were supposed to hold their breath and remain motionless while the claustrophia-inducing X-ray scanner worked just inches away.
At ages 4 and 18 months, Sara and Anna had to endure numerous scans to check chronic sinus infections. If they needed to be sedated, a 15-minute procedure could last two or three hours.
"They hated them," Bryant says of her girls. "It was all we could do to keep them from crying, wiggling, breathing and blinking. We just could not get them to do it."
When the girls tried the first-of-its kind ambient CT scan at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, it was as if they were entranced.
"This time," Bryant said, "they were smiling and laughing, and I didn't have to coax them through it."
To warm up an otherwise harsh and sterile atmosphere, the ambient CT scan bathes the room in a warm light, and projects cartoons or videos on the walls and ceiling for children to watch during the exam. The young patients get to choose the color and images.
The videos distract the children and cue them when to hold their breath and lie still, which is essential to getting an accurate scan.
The manufacturer, Royal Philips Electronics, is also adding video and audio to other confining procedures like MRIs and catheterizations.
While the special effects might not matter so much to adults, Bryant said, "There's a huge difference when you're talking about children. It's comforting."
What's in your veins?
Mistakes in giving medications are so common at hospitals, according to the Institute of Medicine, that on average, a patient will be subjected to one error each day they're hospitalized.
To try to prevent that, some hospitals are using a computerized system called the Bedside Verification Monitor to check on what drugs their patients are getting.
At Edward Hospital in Naperville, when a doctor writes a prescription (still using old-fashioned handwriting, a notoriously sloppy practice that officials also hope to change someday), the pharmacy enters the instructions into a computerized database.
When nurses attempt to administer the medication, they must check it with the monitor. They wheel a portable computer into the patient's room, and scan a bar code on the patient's wrist band and on the medication container, to verify that they match correctly.
"It alerts them if they're in the wrong room or have the wrong dose," said nurse Jackie Ford. "It's a safety net for the nurse and patient."
Other nurses thought Ford, nursing manager of medical oncology, was crazy when she pioneered the new system three years ago, saying it added a step and was too time-consuming.
But now that they're used to the system, nurses feel "naked" on rare occasions when they have to give medications without the monitor, such as when the computer system is down.
As for patients, Ford said, "They absolutely love it, because they know we're taking a proactive attempt to protect them. If you try to give them medication without it, they'll stop you and say, 'Hey, why aren't you using that?'"
Burns and infections are some of the most painful types of injuries hospitals treat.
The pain from cleaning flesh-eating bacteria or stretching fresh skin grafts can be blinding - so one hospital is trying to enhance therapy by blinding its patients to the pain.
Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood has spent $50,000 to offer SnowWorld, a virtual reality game built to distract patients from their discomfort.
While physical therapy remains painful, it's crucial to perform simple yet important tasks like eating or brushing teeth.
Before therapy, patients done a mask that blocks their outer hearing and vision and immerses them in a three-dimensional snow scene.
While therapists bend the victim's limbs to stretch their skin and improve mobility, the patients click a computer mouse to throw snowballs at igloos and penguins in their winter wonderland.
Research shows this diversionary approach drops reports of pain by 35 percent to 50 percent in both children and adults. Some patients even say they have fun playing the game.
Patients still take their maximum dose of painkillers shortly before the treatment. The virtual reality game doesn't take the place of medication, but complements it.
Physical therapist Adam Young sees the difference the game can make for patients, especially children, who instead of crying sometimes smile through their treatment.
"This is a complete immersion in another world," Young said, "so they're taken out of the hospital environment."
Wired while waiting
Families killing time in hospital waiting rooms are usually stuck with 2-month-old magazines.
At Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, visitors have the World Wide Web at their fingertips.
Since installing the system last year, Good Shepherd is leading a small but growing trend among hospitals to offer wireless Internet access. The free service is available to anyone in any patient or waiting room, as long as they bring their own laptop or digital device.
In some cases, families spend the day waiting while a loved one has surgery, then send updates to e-mail or a blog as doctors brief them on the situation.
Parents often use Wi-Fi to keep working online while taking a child in for treatment. In one case, a Motorola executive who had a joint replacement spent his recuperation furiously tapping away on his laptop.
"There's an expectation for technology that might not have been there five years ago," Good Shepherd spokesman Mike Deering said. "Now people feel alone without it. It helps them make it through their hospital stay, knowing they're not missing anything from the outside world."
Nurse on call
When patients hit the nurse call button at Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, they don't get a unit secretary who knows nothing about their case, as at some hospitals.
Instead, the call buttons are wired to ring directly either a Patient Care Technician or a nurse.
If the request is routine, say, for towels or a cup of water, the responder can pick items up on the way, rather than going to the room to find out what the problem is, then walking somewhere else and back to get whatever is needed.
If the call is urgent, for pain meds or shortness of breath, the nurse can respond immediately.
The system can also alert a team to respond to emergencies such as a heart attack or sudden drop in blood pressure.
"It saves a lot of time for staff, and provides real quick service for the patient," said Sue Mesmer, director of telecommunications. "It's probably going to be the gold standard before long."
Giving patients a lift
One common source of injuries at hospitals is the simple act of moving a patient out of bed.
Groggy, frail or overweight patients sometimes slip and fall, and nurses wrench their backs as they grapple with them - a leading cause of workers' compensation claims in health care.
To minimize the risk, Delnor Hospital in Geneva added patient lifts to every bed in its new 63-room addition.
The lift consists of a hammocklike sling that is lowered onto the bed. The patient is rolled to the side, then rolled onto the lift, and can be carried to the bathroom, moved to a chair or simply suspended while bedding is changed.
Now, rather than calling one or two other nurses to help her move a patient, nursing chief Lore Bogolin can move a patient by herself.
"We got great feedback from patients, family and staff," she said. "This device has helped us come a long way, so we're really grateful for it."