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Tracking Technologies

February 1, 2009
by Kate Huvane Gamble
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Real-time tracking technology may promise futuristic functionality, but many CIOs are using it today to save money

Asset tracking has come a long way. And while some organizations monitor the trends, those who have adopted the technology are seeing cost-saving benefits. As many CIOs are finding, tracking technologies can provide almost real-time information on the whereabouts of equipment and patients. With such visibility, clinicians can find what they need, while IT managers help cut down on redundant orders. Some CIOs, however, are moving to the next level, tracking surgical tools, monitoring the temperature of sensitive medications and keeping tabs on patients.
Mike liard

Mike Liard

“It's a technology whose time has come,” says Mike Liard, research director for the RFID and Contactless Group at New York's ABI Research. Liard's group estimated the market for RFID within healthcare/life sciences at $43.5 million in 2008, and projects it will expand to $165.8 million by 2013. “It's growing quite steadily,” he says, particularly among hospitals and larger health systems that are looking to technologies such as tracking not just for the “cool factor,” but to address and solve operational inefficiencies.
Bill phillips

Bill Phillips

Hide and seek

At University Health System (San Antonio, Texas), a study was conducted at the 604-bed University Hospital to determine how much time nurses spend looking for medical equipment. Not surprisingly, it was found that not only do clinicians waste a great deal of time searching for devices, but once they locate the items, the clinicians tend to hide them on their unit for future use. The problem with this, says vice president and CIO Bill Phillips, is that it forces organizations “to spend a lot of money for extra smart pumps and extra devices, because there's really no good control or management of those items.”

Similar results were unearthed at Pinnacle Health, a four-campus organization based in Harrisburg, Pa., after IT leaders spoke with the biomedical team. “It was evident that there was a lot of equipment redundancy,” says CIO Steve Roth. “When staffers are unable to find the original, they buy more. So even though we only need five thermometers, there might be 10 of them on the unit.”

To address what was becoming a serious cost management issue and improve equipment utilization, Pinnacle implemented a real-time location system from Andover, Mass.-based Radianse in its 546-bed Harrisburg campus in 2005. To date, Pinnacle has tagged more than 6,000 devices, including biomedical equipment.

“We tagged items to maximize location, and essentially, to make it easier for people on the clinical units to find what they were looking for,” Roth says. The goal was to tag items that were in highest demand to the staff, which included thermometers, pumps and, interestingly, patients.

To that end, Radianse is also being utilized at Pinnacle as the tracking solution behind Pathfinder, the patient tracking software from Pittsburgh-based PeriOptimum that is deployed throughout the hospital. With this application, staff members can locate patients who are due for surgery. “From the time the patient goes into the surgical suite, they are tagged with a disposable arm band,” Roth says. “They are tracked through the entire process from pre-op, intra-op, post-op, all the way through all of the services that occur in the surgical suite.”

RFID a Priority within Two Years (for Hospitals)

Source: healthcare informatics research series (trends in healthcare information technologies: priorities and investments to improve care delivery and reduce errors)

Source: Healthcare Informatics Research Series (Trends in Healthcare Information Technologies: Priorities and Investments to Improve Care Delivery and Reduce Errors)

The patient tracking component, he says, was one of the primary drivers for tracking at Pinnacle.

According to Liard, a small number of other organizations have implemented patient tracking in emergency rooms “to mitigate lines and help ease that admissions process,” as well as for applications like tracking infants and mothers to prevent abductions. “RFID technology is getting better and better, and it really does have a whole host of functionalities,” he says.

Making it count

However, while many CIOs are certainly familiar with the capabilities offered by real-time tracking technologies, there is still some hesitancy to make the leap. Some are monitoring the trends to make sure tracking isn't just a flash in the pan, but instead, an investment that will yield long-term results.

This was precisely the tactic employed by Phillips, who kept RFID on his radar for two years before deploying it. “I actually started monitoring the technology before it made a penetration into the healthcare environment,” he says. “We kept watching it, and when it looked like it got to a maturity level that I was comfortable with, we took out on an RFP.”

Phillips' team purchased a system from Hatboro, Pa.-based InfoLogix Inc., for its regional Level I trauma center, University Hospital. The overarching vision, he ways, was to improve workflow and patient care by enabling clinicians to more quickly locate assets. Included under this umbrella were high mobility clinical assets such as defibrillators and fusion pumps, as well as IT assets like computers on wheels and tablets.