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Fast-Tracking Locations: Technology pinpoints equipment and more in healthcare facilities

By Claire Swedberg | Dec 11, 2023
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Knowing where mobile medical equipment is, and its status, is a challenge that hospitals, clinics and nursing homes have been grappling with for decades.

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Knowing where mobile medical equipment is, and its status, is a challenge that hospitals, clinics and nursing homes have been grappling with for decades. The bigger the site, the harder it may be to track important assets such as infusion pumps or wheelchairs when patients need them.

Many healthcare sites have installed tracking systems to keep an eye on valuable equipment assets, staff and patients to ensure care is provided efficiently and safely. There are a variety of technology options, and many call for installation by electrical contractors.

Emerging tech

For a growing number of hospitals, this technology provides a view into asset tracking they never had manually. Companies sell anchors, sensors, readers, software or full solutions that can detect where and when patient care equipment is needed and offer analytics about how and when they are used, cleaned or maintained. 

One example is a real-time locating system (RTLS) for asset tracking, which is designed to capture transmissions of sensors and badges moving around the hospital, like blue dots on a map.

The nature of healthcare facilities makes this technology especially beneficial as many hospitals are a mix of old and new construction, said Scott Hondros, vice president of customer excellence and strategic consulting for technology company CenTrak, Newtown, Pa. As technology progresses, modern construction has employed updated designs and processes.

While these updates in technology offer improvements for patients and staff, “they can often create a confusing labyrinth of corridors and buildings with inconsistent layouts—especially in clinical care,” Hondros said.

The culmination of various facility design styles, increased movement of mobile medical equipment and the fast-paced environment of healthcare make it ever harder for caregivers to locate equipment. 

 

The culmination of various facility design styles, increased movement of mobile medical equipment (MME) and the fast-paced environment of healthcare make it ever harder for caregivers to locate equipment. This can lead to inefficiencies, delayed patient care and increased purchasing of assets the facility may already have, according to Hondros.

With RTLS technology, hospitals gain accurate location information by attaching an internet of things-enabled tag to the item. CenTrak offers a room-level locating technology that identifies where those goods are based on tag transmissions. This information is crucial when seeking MME for a patient, responding to a staff duress incident or automatically updating patient health details in electronic health records or clinical software. Hondros pointed to a variety of options an organization can use to manage, monitor or locate their medical fleet or patients.

One option is a passive system with battery-free tags, which requires less infrastructure. Installers connect portal readers in key locations for RFID systems, which can read tags as they pass through egress points. An RFID tag provides passive alerts, allows for reactive responses and highlights roughly where and when an item has been located, but it does not provide information from a real-time location standpoint. In this case, disposable passive tags are a low-cost option to keep track of individual, small, less expensive consumable items.

For those aiming to monitor the location of crucial, expensive and highly mobile equipment, however, a more infrastructure-­heavy solution is needed. That can include infrared (IR) devices that find tagged goods through transmissions. These solutions help monitor the movement of key equipment and people when it’s critical to know the constant location in real time, Hondros explained. IR insights are beneficial for staff duress, for instance.

Other options are Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) multimode solutions, which offer zone-level accuracy. BLE is not as precise as IR or some other RTLS technologies and doesn’t serve well for cases of an emergency where there’s no time for delay, and having the precise, room-level location can make a significant difference in the outcome, Hondros said. So each site requires a full understanding of what is needed and can be afforded.

In most cases, CenTrak works directly with the healthcare organization to build a customized three- to five-year business model with a roadmap, recommended solutions installment plan and predicted return on investment. Many organizations are operating on a tight budget and reduced resources, Hondros said. 

“Under these circumstances, the organization must be smart regarding who it partners with, what the partner’s scalability offers and how quantifiable results are provided,” he said. Organizations often begin with asset management in top priority units and build greater enterprise visibility from there.

When it comes to installation and integration partners, CenTrak works with subcontractors that can efficiently pull cables and install devices effectively with minimal disruption.

“We continue to seek partner organizations that understand our technology [and] know how and where to install the solutions,” Hondros said.

Actionable data can also help hospitals reduce bottlenecks using predictive analytics. Command centers are another area of interest, according to Hondros.

“We seek to reduce the silos built up within healthcare, and believe that further integrating healthcare command centers and EMR [electronic medical records] would be extremely powerful and result in positive patient outcomes,” he said.

Asset management versus tracking

There’s more than one challenge when it comes to asset tracking, said Ryan Madigan, vice president of sales, North America, at Litum, Houston. He differentiates between the process of asset management and asset tracking. Management includes the digital and physical oversight of valued items, while tracking zeros in on the real-time location and pinpointing exactly where they are. Litum’s is an end-to-end solution using UWB technology and software to create a digital record of where, and how, things are.

One feature is asset utilization. Hospitals aim to optimize how they use assets to reduce capital expenses.

“It’s crucial to efficiently utilize these resources to prevent them from being either underused or overstrained,” Madigan said.

The company’s RTLS solutions combine software and hardware, based on sensor networks, for tracking the location of personnel and assets across a range of healthcare use cases. Litum’s healthcare solutions portfolio covers staff and patient tracking, status monitoring, asset management and tracking and environmental monitoring.

Who installs the systems varies. Depending on the market, Litum manages installations with its own field service team or leverages local partner relationships trained on Litum products, Madigan said. 

“A focus for the company heading into 2024 is the expansion of our partner network, particularly in North America, to enhance installation capabilities and local support for Litum products,” he said.

Litum’s partner program’s goal is to build a network of integrators and contractors who work closely with the company to deliver innovative solutions, Madigan said. The company is interested in “developing valuable collaborations within the integration community,” he said. With that in mind, “we welcome partnerships with electrical contractors and integrators who may be interested in joining us on this journey.”

Projects can be ongoing. Sometimes hospitals or other facilities start with one installation and expand RTLS functionality over time. For instance, some companies adopt Litum’s technology to maintain oversight of patient movements. 

This visibility ensures vulnerable patients remain within designated safe zones, instantly alerting staff if there is any deviation. However, with the technology in place, other integrations are possible, into access controls and security systems, wireless handheld devices and nurse call systems.

The RTLS technology also can enhance care by monitoring personnel. To ensure the safety and help improve staff efficiency, the technology offers real-time data on the location and status of each team member. Staff members carry sensors and can use them to activate duress alerts, while the system can provide that data to facility co-workers or security personnel to quickly identify the location of the staff member and provide immediate assistance.

More small or rural hospitals are expected to adopt asset tracking or RTLS solutions going forward, Hondros said. Looking ahead five years, Madigan also sees growth in the technology and how it is integrated with existing systems.

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

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