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Hospitals play tag—RFID finds a niche in healthcare

The technology is already helping the hospital streamline workflows and meet regulatory requirements, Malone says. For instance, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations requires that 95 percent of the 700 pieces of equipment in use at SOMC receives preventive maintenance each month.

"We used to send staff to locate the equipment, and they would find 60 percent of it in the first two weeks. But the other 40 percent would take four people weeks searching room to room, disrupting patients," Malone says. "Now they can punch that item’s control number into the computer and see its exact location. It saves 20 to 30 percent of that manpower."

Malone says SOMC was also pleasantly surprised to see the prices for RTLS systems dropping. "About 10 years ago, we looked at this type of system and it was near $1 million," he says. "This came in at under $300,000, so the prices for these systems are getting much more reasonable."

Software sophistication

Beyond just tagging equipment, the software solutions that provide a window onto equipment location are growing more sophisticated. At Washington Hospital Center, the data from a Parco Wireless ultra wideband network is fed into the hospital’s clinical information system, which becomes a knowledge management tool for asset tracking. David Roseman says he can create views of equipment location information based on geography or specialty.

"Someone in respiratory therapy can have a view that shows all the tagged respiratory equipment throughout the hospital," he explains. Or a view could be geographic—a nurse or clerk could see all types of tagged assets on their particular wing of the hospital. They know they have six IV pumps and in which rooms they are located.

Roseman also is studying the potential value of tracking tag-to-tag interaction. "If we knew that a tagged doctor was two feet from a tagged patient for a certain number of minutes, we could run a comparison with our financials to see if we were properly charging for a consultation," he says. "It could be valuable in the future to tag patients to manage throughput and have a better understanding of where patients are at any given time."

Although fewer than 10 percent of North American hospitals have deployed RTLS employing RFID, the technology has matured enough that CIOs are starting to share success stories with peers, says Mike Liard, research director for RFID at ABI Research. Facing so many other budget challenges, CIOs may have a hard time making the case for RTLS. Liard says, "You have to define the business challenge, the economic impact, and then start building return-on-investment models. The key is that you’re working toward business process efficiency gains, of which the asset tracking may just be the first."

Passive RFID bolsters medication safety system

Most of the healthcare industry’s interest in radio frequency identification (RFID) involves active RFID tags, which continuously send radio signals to networked receivers placed throughout a hospital. But passive RFID, which requires a user to swipe a reader near a tag, also has its uses.

St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh has created a hybrid system that includes a wireless network, barcode scanning and passive RFID tags. The system has had a dramatic impact on lowering medication errors, according to hospital VP and CIO Richard Schaeffer.

To improve patient safety, many years ago St. Clair became the first hospital in the country to use a robotic medication-dispensing unit, and that involved barcoding all medications. Schaeffer described how the system works: After the robot delivers a medication ordered by a physician, a nurse picks up a personal digital assistant made by Socket Mobile, swipes her own RFID tag and enters a PIN security code. That populates fields on the PDA screen with her patient list. She chooses the patient and gets a list of all medications to administer. She then goes to the patient’s room and scans his patient RFID, which also brings up a photo of the patient. The nurse then scans the
barcode on the medication.

"If there is an error, such as the wrong drug or the wrong dose, the nurse will get an error message alerting her," Schaeffer explains, adding that the patient photo is a key improvement. "All the other steps could be correct but they could be at the wrong patient’s bed," he says. Once the drug is administered, the nurse hits a send button on the PDA and the information about the dosage is transmitted to the patient’s electronic medical record.

Schaeffer says St. Clair has done three studies to measure the impact of the technology. The first, in 2004, found that the hospital had prevented 6,000 errors in a year. In the two following years, it estimated it prevented 5,000 errors each year. "You can imagine the impact barcoding could have," Schaeffer says, noting that across the country, only 15 percent of hospitals barcode their medications. "Those kinds of mistakes," he says, "are still going on."

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