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Right on Track

March 28, 2010
by Kate Huvane Gamble
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Though asset tracking isn't top priority, with the ARRA deadline looming, some organizations are finding that it makes sense (and cents)
Gregg Malkary
Gregg Malkary

With all of the issues C-suite leaders have dealt with over the past year or so, from mergers to meaningful use, it's understandable that certain IT projects have been placed on the backburner. But as organizations move forward, smart CIOs are looking past implementations such as CPOE and identifying tools to improve workflow and save costs. One of those technologies is radio frequency identification (RFID).

Gregg Malkary, managing director of Spyglass Consulting Group (Menlo Park, Calif.), says asset tracking is a strategy that can yield-a quick return by preventing overbuying and enabling staff to utilize resources more effectively. His research shows that at any given time, most hospital staffs can't locate 20 to 25 percent of their equipment. “That's problematic,” he says. “By tracking high-value assets like wheelchairs, IV pumps and gurneys, organizations are able to increase availability and utilization.”

Cool Runnings: Keeping Tabs on Temperatures

One area in which RFID is making a significant impact is in temperature monitoring. At University Health System (San Antonio, Texas), the technology was deployed in refrigerators throughout the hospital and ambulatory locations, ensuring that temperatures are recorded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to vice president and CIO, Bill Phillips.

With the RFID solution from Hatboro, Pa.-based Infologix, data is logged into an electronic record, enabling staff to pull up information about any particular refrigerator unit (including when it may have lost power and for how long) at any time.

This, says Gregg Malkary, managing director of Spyglass Consulting Group (Menlo Park, Calif.), is critical. “The Joint Commission requires ongoing maintenance of equipment. If you can't show records, you'll get dinged, and that can impact accreditation. The implications are huge.”

Compliance with Oakbrook, Ill.-based Joint Commission regulations was a key motivator at Florida Hospital (Orlando), where AeroScout's Wi-Fi-based Temperature Monitoring solution was recently deployed throughout the 2,188-bed, seven-hospital network. According to vice president and chief technology officer Herb Keller, Florida's IT staff worked with the Redwood City, Calif.-based company to install tags in all of its refrigerators that monitor temperatures and notify staff if they fall out of range. “We have to be able to produce detailed records of where all of the refrigerators are located, which is easy to do from a mapping perspective, and we have to document any variance in temperature controls,” he says. Not only that, the hospital must show how quickly the units return to the proper temperature range and how the issues have been resolved.

Implementing the technology, he says, has paid off. “We found several situations where a refrigerator will get unplugged and moved, and it will get out of range. There have been several times where we could have lost $30,000 to $50,000 worth of pharmaceuticals, but because of the alarm system, we've been able to avoid big losses.”

A more efficient model

Bill Phillips
Bill Phillips

For Bill Phillips, vice president and CIO at University Health System in San Antonio, Texas, the problem was evident. When the biomedical department was put under his direction in 2008, he conducted an assessment and found that the staff was managing more than 21,000 pieces of equipment manually. Locating a specific piece of equipment for preventative maintenance or a product recall meant having to walk the floors searching for items, he recalls.

RFID a Priority within Two Years

So to mitigate the issue, the 498-bed hospital implemented an RFID solution from Hatboro, Pa.-based Infologix that would enable staff to electronically pinpoint the location of any device, by unit or by floor. Now, when the ED staff reports that smart pumps are missing, the IT department can go online and locate them right away. This, says Phillips, not only helps quell overbuying, it helps nurses avoid wasting time looking for equipment. “It has helped us utilize our time more efficiently, and that's big, especially in these financial times,” he notes. However, “The big hit is when you start looking at manpower and lost meds. Those dollar savings, for what is a minimal investment, can rack up at a very rapid pace.”

“The big hit is when you start looking at manpower and lost meds. Those dollar savings, for what is a minimal investment, can rack up at a very rapid pace.”


  • Even though many organizations have had to put certain IT projects on the backburner, savvy CIOs are looking ahead and implementing RFID.

  • Industry experts believe asset tracking can help organizations realize a quick return by preventing overbuying and enabling staff to utilize resources more effectively.

  • In order to comply with Joint Commission regulations (and increase efficiency), some hospitals are installing RFID tags in refrigerators that monitor temperatures and notify staff when units fall out of range.

  • Forward-thinking organizations are looking to utilize RFID to track sponges and other instruments in the operating room, and to more effectively monitor patients in the ED.

University Health also plans to further leverage its use of RFID by tracking sponges and other instruments in the operating room, as well as high-value devices including defibrillators and compression stockings (used to help circulation in cardiac patients).

At Florida Hospital, a 2,188-bed network based in Orlando, an RFID solution from Redwood City, Calif.-based AeroScout was first implemented to monitor refrigerator temperatures (see sidebar). After the pilot's quick success, the organization opted to expand the technology to the biomedical department in order to keep tabs on IV pumps and other devices, says Herb Keller, vice president and chief technology officer. “Now, if a floor is short on pumps, we can use the system to pull pumps from another floor and redistribute them,” notes Keller. “And that's a huge savings for a hospital because of the high costs of renting and purchasing new equipment. We can see great potential there.”

Not all of the benefits of asset tracking, however, are based on dollar savings, says Keller. Once RFID was launched, Florida Hospital's IT staff realized that equipment frequently wasn't properly maintained, and that there was variance between different makes and models that impacted power. “When we put this in place, it brought up operational issues that we didn't know about,” he recalls. “We started getting a lot of alerts, so we introduced some commonality in how equipment is managed, and we changed responsibilities to give the staff more ownership. Now there's a new level of accountability.” According to Keller, plans are in place to expand the technology to more than 3,000 biomedical pumps.

It's an investment that Malkary believes will position Florida Hospital well for the future. “In terms of location-based services, a lot of organizations think it's a nice to have, not a critical application, especially in this economic climate,” he says. “But if you can't find the assets you need, that decreases productivity. This is definitely a big issue.”


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Healthcare Informatics 2010 April;27(4):35-36

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