Despite the demands on healthcare caused by an ageing population, complex treatments, legislation, tight budgets, and more, one thing remains constant: every clinician I’ve met navigates these challenges while retaining a laser-focus on delivering the best possible care. Specifically, they’re curious about how new technology can help them better manage the ever-changing and increasing demands put upon the healthcare community, while also keeping costs under control.
According to Zebra’s Future of Healthcare: 2022 Hospital Vision Study hospitals have a particular focus on Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) right now:
● 96% of hospitals plan to expand the use of RTLS to track patients more effectively throughout treatment.
● 95% are looking to RTLS to track medical devices, supplies and specimens, while 83% want to leverage RTLS to improve operational efficiencies.
Why the interest in locationing technology?
When Wi-Fi, smart sensors and mobile technology are combined, they give items what we call a digital “voice”. That digital voice can then be “heard” – or captured – by devices such as fixed and handheld RFID readers to provide clinicians with real-time information about the location (and status, in some instances) of pretty much anything: patients, staff, equipment, assets and much more. This data, in effect, provides real-time visibility into what’s happening across a hospital or clinic.
As my colleague Kent Landry recently explained in this blog post, there are many different flavours of RTLS technology, including Ultrawideband (UWB), Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE), Wi-Fi and passive and active radio-frequency identification (RFID). In fact, ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID technology, which is recommended by the RAIN RFID Alliance in many instances, is becoming popular for healthcare applications along with Bluetooth Low Energy solutions – and for good reason.
RTLS Provides Immediate Benefits to Hospitals
There are three main areas where RTLS technologies can assist teams in enhancing patient care while simultaneously improving processes and easing workflows:
- Patient locationing
- Asset tracking
- Staff locationing
Each of these applications provides care teams on the ground with the real-time data they need to make what we call ‘the next best move’. Ideally, clinicians would be equipped with clinical smartphones or tablets that would enable them to monitor patients’ journeys, track assets and optimise clinical resources from wherever they might be in that moment. Remember, the goal with any modern healthcare technology is to untether physicians and nurses from a central ‘station’ or office and to minimise the steps needed to do their jobs so that they can spend more time with patients.
Let’s explore these RTLS applications and benefits in more detail…
Monitoring Your Patients’ Journeys
Clinics and hospitals that are able to track patients’ full triage and treatment journeys can make more informed care decisions and better safeguard vulnerable patients. Here’s how RTLS can help:
● Admissions and journey management: Overcrowding is a common problem and can lead to treatment delays, longer stays and a rise in re-admissions, mortality rates and costs. RTLS can mitigate these risks by making it quick and easy to tag patients upon admission. Teams can then monitor patients’ locations and treatment progress throughout their stay, prioritising those with critical needs.
● Facilitate faster, more-effective treatment: RTLS can seamlessly track patients as they move through your facility. The data, accessed by clinicians over mobile apps on handheld clinical smartphones or tablets, can reduce delays in treatment caused by a wide range of issues. For example, alerts can be raised if a patient has been left in a waiting room too long, and porters will always know where equipment is to move people without delay. Using RTLS to improve the flow of patients has allowed one hospital to increase the number of patients it can treat and boosted its revenue by $5.5 million.
● Safeguard at-risk patients: RTLS can keep a remote and protective eye on patients, 24/7, alerting clinicians if a patient has moved beyond a predefined area.
Tracking Equipment, Supplies and Specimens with Precision and Accuracy
It’s understandably hard to achieve visibility over all assets in a large hospital, let alone their locations and physical conditions. But failure to do so causes problems. For instance, an estimated $765 billion worth of unused, expired and outdated supplies are thrown away each year. Hospitals often rent more equipment than they need. And nurses are frequently diverted from providing care to track down medical equipment. RTLS overcomes these issues by:
● Improving inventory visibility, lowering operational costs: Hospitals manage a huge array of assets, from beds and wheelchairs to IV poles, pumps and heart monitors. The current location of all equipment can be tracked and shown on a map on a clinical smartphone to help care team members immediately retrieve what they need. RTLS also makes it easy for teams to quickly conduct inventory checks – e.g. in pharmacies and supply rooms where inventory needs to be frequently counted, inspected and rotated to minimise the risk of out-of-stocks and prevent the expiration of time-sensitive items.
For example, The Medical Park Hospitals Group, Turkey’s largest private hospital group, is using a range of Zebra’s RTLS technology to track items across its many care sites. Ahmet Usta, the group’s Director of Strategic Planning, Budgeting and Analytics, says: ‘Full inventory counts used to take a team of people up to eight weeks per hospital. Now one person can do the job in two days. We can effectively track asset usage too…which helps us to save costs on rentals and over-purchasing.’
● Ensuring compliance and safety: RTLS can be used to comply with safety regulations such as the European Union’s Falsified Medicines Directive or Medical Device Regulation, both of which requires hospitals to keep a detailed record of item locations, movements and handlers. Track and trace technology can also prove beneficial if there are instances of tampering or concerns that temperature-sensitive items may have been compromised as it can help identify those who may have handled those items or last inspected them.
● Improving specimen identification, tracking and management: With track and trace systems, it’s far easier for hospitals to ensure a complete chain of custody for specimens, during collection, transport to the lab, testing and even results reporting. This is particularly critical to ensuring the integrity of healthcare actions. As my colleague Chris Sullivan called out in a recent discussion, the consequences of mistakes made during specimen collection and labelling, transport and testing ‘can be physically, mentally, emotionally and financially injurious’. The bill for redraws, retesting and additional treatments required in the wake of errors can ring up around $400 million annually for hospitals. And one study found a whopping one-third (37%) of specimen labelling errors lead to adverse patient care actions.
● Eliminating theft and misplaced items: Misplaced supplies and equipment, as well as theft, are common issues. With RTLS, assets can be tracked in real time to prevent theft. Tags can even be applied to high value items so that alarms are raised when assets cross an unauthorised physical threshold.
Improving Care with Accurate Staff Locationing
According to the World Health Organization, the shortage of global healthcare workers could rise to over 14 million in 2030 with clinicians expected to face ever-increasing workloads. But, as any clinician will say, hospitals are already under pressure.
Automating and streamlining workflows can help alleviate some of the demands. For example, whiteboards are often used to plan tasks and time, but the detail on them is out of date as soon as it’s written. Furthermore, clinicians don’t have visibility into the location of colleagues. So, if a patient’s condition changes, nurses often have to leave a patient’s bedside to search for a relevant specialist.
RTLS can remove some of these inefficiencies and support teams in working in more agile ways. With a real-time view of staff location and status, and the time taken to manage appointments and treatment, hospitals can accelerate emergency response, better manage resources and more accurately calculate the true cost of care:
● Accelerate emergency response: Clinicians and safety officers equipped with mobile computers can see every member of their team on a map and quickly mobilise resources to respond to changing conditions.
● Adjust staff levels appropriately: Due to the unpredictable variability in patient acuity, estimating staffing requirements can be challenging. RTLS and mobile computing technologies allow you to dynamically balance patient cases based on area-specific acuity and workload, automatically assigning clinicians to patients based on their proximity. Hospitals can also analyse historical data to accurately predict demand, adjusting staffing levels to better meet patient needs.
● Calculate the true cost of care: Your data will, over time, reveal great intel – such as the amount of resource invested in each patient by staff members, treatments, tests delivered and medical equipment deployed. This provides you with unprecedented visibility into the true costs of patient care. Critically, it will shine a light on inefficiencies too.
Of course, these are just a few of the ways that RTLS can help you improve operational efficiencies and reduce operating expenses.
I encourage you to reach out to me and the team to learn more about the demonstrated benefits of RFID, BLE and other RTLS solutions in healthcare facilities. Zebra has quite a bit of experience addressing these types of issues, and we’ve helped customers secure quite significant returns on investment for this type of technology application. In fact, Gartner* recently looked at our capabilities in this area, and ultimately named Zebra a Leader in the *2020 Magic Quadrant for Indoor Location Services, Global. We have also been recognised as a Visionary for each of the two prior years of this report. You can download a complimentary copy of the latest full Gartner report here until December 31, 2020.
We can help your clinic or hospital identify, track, locate and monitor the condition of every patient, staff and asset you have. Our real-time location systems, which combine automated data capture, handheld scanning and highly intuitive mobile computers alongside data analysis systems – give your clinicians and administrative leaders real-time insight to assist with decision-making. This can deliver better outcomes for your patients, ease pressure on staff and help save money.
*Gartner, Magic Quadrant for Indoor Location Services, Global, 13 January 2020, Tim Zimmerman, Annette Zimmermann
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