Over the last ten to 15 years there has been a big technology push in the healthcare industry. It started with technology advancements in electronic medical equipment and has evolved into many technologies that are focused on improving patient care, patient recovery times, and staff efficiency. In fact, we have seen the healthcare industry go from trailing the corporate world in technology by ten years to surpassing the corporate world.
There has been an especially big push to connect many medical devices to a network via Wi-Fi, which allows information to be directly fed into the patient’s medical record or the hospital’s Admission, Discharge, and Transfer (ADT) system. These “Internet of Things” systems differ from commercial IoT systems in that they are closed, meaning that devices communicate with one another but not with the public internet in order to maintain a high level of information security.
The Rise of RTLS
Some of the most interesting advancements have been in the use of wireless devices to improve patient care, customer service, and caregiver efficiencies. One example of this is the further development of Real Time Location Systems (RTLS). These systems consist of an active or passive tag that is attached to the patient, caregiver, or equipment. This technology can be integrated directly into the hospital staff’s identification card. The wireless technology used for these system varies and may consist of Wi-Fi, Radio Frequency (RF), Infrared, ultrasound, or Bluetooth or a combination of multiple wireless technologies. Hospitals are now using these technologies to track patients, staff, and devices, and they can be integrated into many healthcare applications such as Nurse Call, Electronic Medical Records, Computerized Maintenance and Management, Admission Discharge and Transfer, and Access Control.
As an example, hospitals can now gain a tremendous amount of productivity by simply attaching an RTLS tag to all of their wheelchairs and providing a smartphone app to caregivers so they can find the closest wheelchair available for use. The result is reduced wait time for the patient and more efficient use of time for the caregiver. Pretty much any device that moves around the hospital, such as IV pumps and medical scopes, can be tracked to reduce the risk of equipment loss or misplacement. Not surprisingly, these systems have been shown to increase staff satisfaction.
Another example of patient tracking is being able to see where the patient is in the system and if they have been waiting long in the queue. For example, if a patient is scheduled for an MRI and is moved to the queuing area, the RTLS system can alert a caregiver if the patient has been waiting for more than ten minutes. The caregiver can then check in with the patient and provide an update instead of leaving them unattended for a long period of time. The system can also alert the caregiver when the patient is on their way back to the patient room.
Unlocking Healthcare Workflow
Patient and staff tracking identifies workflow issues and bottlenecks that may not be readily apparent, helping hospitals find efficiencies and reduce patient wait times. These systems can track Alzheimer’s patients and lock doors as they approach them so they do not wander beyond a specific area.
We have seen RTLS technologies integrated into nurse call systems for years with automated call canceling, but we are now seeing an expansion of this type of integration. One of the most interesting examples was put into place to manage one of the largest problems in healthcare: infectious control and hand hygiene compliance. Hand hygiene involves disinfecting hands with soap and water or alcohol to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Ideally a caregiver should disinfect their hands every time they enter and exit a patient room. RTLS sensors can be integrated into the hand hygiene dispenser located near the entrance to the patient room. With this technology, the dispenser senses when a caregiver enters the room and whether or not they used the dispenser. If they do not disinfect their hands within a set period of time the dispenser sends a signal to the caregiver’s badge, which will vibrate as a reminder. All hand hygiene events can be tracked in the system so managers can address adherence.
Other applications can be used to automate specific functions such as automatic login/logout of computer terminals. It is amazing how much time caregivers spend logging in. RTLS technology can be used to autolog into a computer terminal if you are standing right in front of it. Other examples include auto call cancel when staff respond to a patient request. The call can be canceled as the nurse enters the room and track how much time the nurse spends in the room. This technology can eliminate much of the data entry required through automation. It would be very easy to pull a report showing how much time the patient spent with caregivers during a stay at the hospital without having to manually input the data.
Healthcare facilities are prime edge cases for RTLS technologies because of the sheer number of interactions and items that must be tracked in order to meet standards of care such as the Total Performance Score and HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) Survey. As new and innovative applications expand for this technology over the next few years, we will see a revolution in healthcare’s use of RTLS, Big Data, and the IoT.
RTLS product photos courtesy of CenTrak.