Rhonda Hoeffner

Nurse Rhonda Hoeffner charts information on a computer in the cancer center's ICU at Johns Hopkins. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / December 15, 2011)

Johns Hopkins intensive care nurse Nelly E. Lopez spends so much of her workday monitoring patient distress alarms that she sometimes hears phantom beeps even when she is no longer on the job.

Hopkins doctors say Lopez's "alarm fatigue" shows what is wrong with hospital intensive care units, which they describe as fragmented systems made up of dozens of machines that don't talk to one another. The constant alarms, invasive instruments and unwieldy number of machines create a stressful, and sometimes unsafe, environment for the medical staff as well as ICU patients, who are the ones in most critical condition.

Hopkins has a plan to bring ICUs into the 21st century and has joined forces with an unorthodox partner, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, to make it happen.

The hospital's Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality has entered into an agreement with Lockheed to combine the two institutions' expertise to create an updated, more efficient ICU. They hope an improved ICU will have widespread benefits: enhanced patient safety, reduced costs, fewer medical errors and a smoother work environment for hospital employees.

Ultimately, the medical institution wants its ICU model to be used around the world and as the groundwork for similar systems to be used in the operating room and other hospital departments.

"Hospitals do good, but they can be dangerous places," said Dr. Peter Pronovost, Johns Hopkins senior vice president for patient safety and quality and director of the Armstrong Institute. "We should be able to create an ICU that reduces risks to patients."

Hopkins will combine its clinical knowledge with Lockheed's engineering prowess to create a single system in which machines communicate with and complement each other. Hospital ICUs now contain 50 to 100 pieces of equipment made by dozens of different designers that aren't integrated.

Pronovost envisions an ICU that notifies a nurse when a pneumonia patient's bed falls below a 30-degree angle. Now nurses have to walk into a patient's room and constantly estimate the angle.

A centralized system would monitor various patient symptoms to help detect diseases like sepsis, which is hard to diagnose because there is no one test for it. Now, nurses and doctors would have to check patient symptoms from several machines to detect the disease.

Patients with acute lung problems, who need regular breaths from an oxygen machine, would get them automatically. Electronic medical records would "talk" to the breathing machine.

"It is really simple from an engineering standpoint, but it hasn't been done in a hospital setting," Pronovost said.

Hopkins and Lockheed are still working out details of the partnership, but analysts said it could turn into a future revenue generator for both institutions as the federal government looks to cut back defense and research spending to control the country's deficit. Lockheed could build the system and sell it to other hospitals, and Hopkins could collect royalties from helping develop it.

Lockheed is known for its defense business but has also built a decades-old health care business that includes providing information technology services to federal government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services and the Department of Defense.

A Lockheed spokesman said the deal with Hopkins is a way to expand other parts of the business.

"Health care — both IT and in the clinical environment — is a strategic adjacent market for Lockheed Martin," said spokesman Christopher Williams. "As a global security company, we recognize rising health care costs as a threat to the nation's economic security."

Lockheed's expertise in building radars and other technologies for war zones could be easily translated to fit a medical setting, one analyst said.

"They can use the technology know-how they have to help make strides in the health sector," said Neal Dihora, an equity analyst with Morningstar.

Lockheed has created a system that simulates hospital settings used by medical institutions to train their staff virtually through the computer. Such simulation systems are used to train pilots in high-pressure environments by creating scenarios that could happen in the air.

Hopkins will use the simulation technology to test different approaches to the ICU. ICU workers would get job training the same way fighter pilots do.