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Follow that Infection

May 29, 2008
by Kate Huvane
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CIOs are finding that asset tracking technologies can help keep tabs on some nasty bacteria.

John glaser, ph.d.

John Glaser, Ph.D.

The use of real-time location systems (RTLS) has been shown to generate significant benefits in the hospital setting in terms of time and cost savings. The technology enables staff members to quickly access information about the location and status of medical equipment, making it easier to find an available IV pump or wheelchair. These benefits have been well-documented. However, another use is starting to surface for RTLS, as a handful of facilities have recently begun leveraging the technology to help control the spread of infections in hospitals. It is, in the words of Partners HealthCare (Boston) CIO John Glaser, Ph.D., an “interesting idea” that can further drive what is already a growing trend in the health IT industry.

According to Mike Liard, research director for the RFID and Contactless Group at New York-based ABI Research, the total market for RFID is currently estimated at around $3.9 billion and could climb to $8.5 billion by 2012.

“There's a lot of interest and a lot of activity around RFID adoption,” says Liard. “Healthcare is certainly enjoying some of the more solid growth rates for sure. Part of what's driving that growth is that it's coming from a small base of installed technology. It's been growing quite well at a high rate the last few years, and we expect that trend to continue.”

Current adoption rates, however, are still somewhat low, with just 23 percent of providers reporting that they use the technology, according to data from the Healthcare Informatics Research Series.

One factor that could give the technology a boost is the infection control angle. Wayne Memorial Hospital, a 316-bed facility based in Goldsboro, N.C., is one of a handful of centers that are leveraging RTLS capabilities for infection control to more effectively locate and monitor equipment that has come into contact with patients carrying antibiotic-resistant organizations. Using this technology, staff members may be able to prevent — or at least manage — the spread of infections.

According to John Jernigan, deputy chief of prevention and response for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC, Atlanta) Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, the need for this type of technology is certainly pressing. The CDC estimates that there are 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections annually in United States hospitals, resulting in 98,000 deaths.

“Hospital-acquired infections are an important public health problem, and we need to do a lot more in terms of preventing the spread of these infections,” says Jernigan, who pinpoints Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections as the most serious one due to their ability to invade an entire body site.

An estimated 94,000 MRSA infections are reported in the United States each year, according to the CDC. Of those infections, says Jernigan, around 86 percent are associated with the delivery of healthcare. While he cites hand hygiene as the cornerstone of infection prevention, he feels that environmental cleaning and disinfection of equipment are vital as well.

MRSA usually results from transmission from one infected or colonized patient to another indirectly through either contaminated hands of healthcare personnel or equipment that was shared between patients, Jernigan says. This factor, he says, makes it all the more critical for healthcare workers to be able to identify and isolate equipment that may have been exposed to the virus. “Anything we can do to more fully implement the cleaning and disinfection procedures that exist in hospitals would be an important step in preventing transmission.”

With MRSA cases costing roughly $30,000 per patient, according to the CDC, it's logical to assume that any technology that can help diminish the number of incidents would be welcomed by most administrators. But is the case for asset tracking as an aid in infection control strong enough?

Tom bradshaw

Tom Bradshaw

According to Liard, the potential is certainly there. “A lot is being done with asset tracking in healthcare,” he says, referring to the technology's primary capability of tracking equipment. “But then there are these secondary stories like infection control that are equally exciting and bring RFID technology into the fold and its capabilities.”

Making the case

At Wayne Memorial, where the RTLS from RadarFind (Research Triangle Park, N.C.) was implemented in 2007, infection control was certainly not a driving force for Tom Bradshaw and his staff; it wasn't until later down the road that they started to think about the system's other functionalities. Bradshaw, chief operations officer at Wayne, chose to deploy RadarFind's product in order to enable his staff to more efficiently monitor and locate the status of mobile medical equipment, and, potentially, improve both the quality of patient care and the proficiency of hospital operations.

Soon after implementation, the hospital was able to leverage the system's capability to gather utilization rate data to more effectively plan medical equipment purchases, resulting in significant cost savings, according to Bradshaw. With the RTLS system, he says, the staff at Wayne was able to capture data and determine how much time the IV pumps were being used — and perhaps more importantly — how much time they were not being utilized.

“We were able to analyze three months worth of data on our IV pumps,” says Bradshaw. “We ended up purchasing 53 fewer than we had budgeted, which saved us $300,000 on capital purchases.”