Asset Tracking in Healthcare

6 March 2018

Healthcare today is technology-intensive and that certainly includes medical devices and instrumentation. The National Center for Biomedical Information (NCBI) estimates that some 1,700 different types of medical devices (and 50K separate products) are in use. Hospitals, especially large ones covering diverse medical specialties, need to have many such devices on hand and operating. This is where the importance of healthcare asset tracking comes in.

For each hospital bed in the U.S., there is approximately $4,000 worth of equipment lost or stolen each year. Asset tracking is changing that.

The sensitive nature of healthcare extends to its equipment. Hospitals don’t just worry about keeping their patients healthy. They have to keep on top of equipment costs and management which are ongoing processes. Keeping these costs down is not simply a one-time budgeting issue but a yearly—or monthly—discussion.

This is perhaps because it’s never quite clear where the most loss will come from. Will it be in wasted hours spent searching for tools? Is it endless shrinkage or over-purchasing? For a hospital like the Florida Hospital Orlando that has nearly 2,000 hospital beds, there’s a lot of equipment to care for. And with unpredictable twists happening (such as the $1.2 million of medical equipment stolen by three men from Toronto Western Hospital) operators are becoming much wiser to wasted resources.

Common problems in today’s hospital

Whether it’s in North America, Africa, Asia, or anywhere in between, hospital physicians and staff are often faced with the same problems and often ask the same questions regularly. Every time there is a patient going into cardiac arrest, an AED is needed—ASAP. Every time a nurse needs to grab a small piece of equipment that has been misplaced, they have to wander the halls or consult spreadsheets. There are huge problems with these solutions.

Manually recording where a staff member has moved an asset is one affordable way to keep track of tools. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for staff to simply forget to update these files or for the asset to simply be moved again without any further note. The result isn’t just a confusing spreadsheet but tools going missing when they are needed most.

Results

  • Assets go missing
  • Asset operability is unclear
  • Staff time is wasted
  • Patients can be left waiting at critical moments
  • Staff stockpiles equippemnt for later use

Why real-time asset tracking in hospitals makes a difference.

Why do operators care about asset location? Here’s a quick refresher.
The real affect of assets missing is the bottom line of hospitals. There’s no question it also makes the lives of patients and staff more difficult, but it definitively affects the hospital in the long-term. Thousands or millions of dollars being wasted each on year on lost or misplaced assets is a fundamental operational issue.
Asset misplacement leads to:

  • Inventory shrinkage
  • Over-purchasing and staff hoarding tools for later use
  • Difficulty preventing theft
  • Par level management complications
  • Disorganized staff
  • Increased patient wait times

Specifically when it comes to prescription drugs or highly expensive equipment, the ability to track and prove presence in real-time means protecting the institution's bottom dollar and keeping everyone safe.

Traditional methods vs. real-time data

RFID first made its way into healthcare over a decade ago, offering all new capabilities for forward-looking healthcare providers. But uptake has been slow. There has been huge excitement as well as clear results that real-time asset tracking in the healthcare sector provides returns both for the operators and patients. Rather than requiring staff to manually record asset location information—or worse, not record anything at all—technology could actively track assets around the hospital. Anyone with authorization could find the location of any tagged tool in an instant.

However, many operators been surprised by the complexity of the technology. The specialized scanners and tags come with a huge price tag and require the installation of antennas all over the space.

The result was a solution made only for a select number of hospitals and providers. As executive vice president of HIMSS Analytics, John Hoyt, said:

"If you're going to spend that kind of money for that kind of infrastructure, all those antennas all over the hospital, you're spending a lot of money for infrastructure. Then use it, for gosh sakes, don't just put it on $5,000 IV pumps. Put it on all kinds of stuff."

There has been no possible to track assets in a hospital in real-time without completely committing mentally and financially to a huge project.

Why Hospital Asset-Tracking Software is So Effective

If their inventory of devices and equipment such as wheelchairs and infusion pumps is not managed effectively:

  • Staff time is wasted in searching for what is needed.
  • Unnecessary expenses incurred to purchase new equipment because the hospital's equipment is underutilized.
  • Maintenance by the biomedical engineering department is unsystematic and catch-up rather than preventive.
  • There are costs in terms of staff distraction and frustration.
  • Patient waiting times even in emergencies are longer.

All these problems and more can be addressed by an effective hospital asset-tracking system. This simultaneously frees more staff time for patients, increases utilization of devices, and reduces unnecessary new purchases. It also makes regular maintenance systematic and preventive.

How a Medical Asset-Tracking Solution Works

In the most general terms, medical assett racking involves tagging devices and equipment. This is so that their location in the hospital can be detected and transmitted to the screens of a range of devices. Once the infrastructure is installed a dedicated staff can start using Web-based applications to see the location of tracked devices in real-time. Only an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of hospitals and other healthcare facilities invested in such systems.

Now the healthcare asset management market is valued at $11.64 billion (2020). It is predicted to reach as much as $56.2 billion by 2026. That would be a compound annual growth rate of 30 percent.

The leading technologies in asset-tracking today employ BLE asset tags with technology that has low energy requirements. Transmission is wireless and uses the Web as the platform for organizing and analyzing information. This can then be accessed on ordinary mobile devices such as laptops, iPads, and smartphones.

Challenges of Tracking Assets in Healthcare

The challenges addressed today by RTLS are the easy locating of assets such as wheelchairs and other moveable equipment that might be anywhere in the hospital. Assets may even be hoarded by departments to ensure their availability when needed.

The search for assets, when they are needed, usually is by health professional staff (often nurses), whose valuable time is spent away from their patients. The frustrations of searching for equipment needed to do their job or of discovering the equipment is dirty or inoperable, can take a toll on staff morale in an already often stressful environment. Studies show that healthcare personnel resent time spent on administrative tasks that take them away from patient care.

When assets cannot be found readily, they are on average underutilized. Staff may repeatedly request more new equipment because the one already on hand is heavily used. Availability of equipment also is affected by maintenance. When the biomedical engineering department cannot locate equipment for regular preventive maintenance, then regular searches and repairing broken equipment becomes the order of the day. The same applies to dirty equipment that is out of use until cleaned.

If a regular inventory of all equipment is taken on a regular schedule to comply with regulations for ensuring maintenance and currency of the technology, a time-consuming search for each piece of equipment is required.

In the end, a considerable amount of hospital equipment is simply lost permanently or stolen from the hospital. Small but expensive devices in particular can be lost amidst bedding or linen changes, patient room changes, and the many daily trips and stops of physicians and nurses.

Using IoT Devices

The management of devices today by the Internet of Things (IoT) has become the state-of-the-art solution to asset-management problems. The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), as it is now being called, operates wirelessly and via the internet. It is drastically reducing the challenge of installation, scale-up, and maintenance. Centered upon the internet, these asset-management systems can be integrated with other hospital systems reducing the disjointed "silo" operations of different hospital functions.

Today, the leading edge of technology in RTLS uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) asset tags that signal gateways. The gateways collect the data that then is organized by software that maps and otherwise reports the location of every tagged asset. The results can be available as needed and as appropriate to all staff.  

Clinical staff can benefit from workflows that are automated and digitized. This is so that they can bring 99 percent transparency to the location and readiness of medical devices. They can tell immediately if used equipment has been collected promptly from bedsides and other locations, ensuring it will be ready when needed.

Innovations in equipment today enable tags to transmit more than location. Kontakt.io achieves location at room level with 99 percent reliability with the combination of Portal Beam & Location Engine. Tags, for example, can transmit information on the asset's condition and its scheduled maintenance.

With BLE-enabled RTLS, homing signals from asset tags pass through walls and any other barriers without interfering with a healthcare facility's other wireless communications or with medical equipment.

Portals in individual rooms can track all tags and become the first gateway for transmitting information on location, temperature, humidity, and other environmental conditions. Asset tags using BLE enable their batteries to last not two years but even up to six.

The Right Asset-Tracking Software

What should asset-tracking software make possible within a healthcare facility? Effective asset-tracking software for RTLS should be accessible via the internet on multiple ordinary devices, not special equipment. It should be capable of organizing transmitted data in multiple ways for different purposes. For example, maps and lists are ways to check location. Availability of a given type of asset should be checkable at the room level, floor by floor, throughout the hospital. An inventory of assets hospital-wide should always be available.

Kontakt.io hospital asset-tracking software uses an internet platform and cloud storage of data. It makes possible access to data according to hospital roles (e.g., patient care, maintenance, purchasing, administrative) and what information that role typically requires.

Information can be organized as maps, lists, and other formats. The system also can send notifications to the attention of appropriate personnel for action. One example is to notify maintenance of a device that needs attention or scheduled maintenance. The software can be opened at the appropriate URL on laptops, iPads, Android phones, and iPhones—to take just a few examples. Information is literally a click away.

Benefits to Healthcare Facilities

The most advanced and effective asset-tracking systems have a major impact on healthcare facilities. They simultaneously address several related systems:

  • Improvements in patient care with less waiting time and more staff attention.
  • Strengthening of staff morale and job satisfaction.
  • Ensuring effective and up-to-date maintenance.
  • Achieving cost savings for purchasing because of more efficient use of existing equipment and more effective use of staff time.

Improvements in each system strengthen the others. They allow the hospital to move away from the problem of disjointed functions to greater integration of functions.

In summary, the right RTLS devices should bring these chief benefits to the healthcare facility:

  • Rapid and seamless integration with workflows.
  • Cost-efficiency because of minimal installed infrastructure, long-lasting and low-maintenance tags, and immediate savings in staff time.
  • Easy access to all components for a single vendor to address particular problems.
  • Use of the system with ordinary hardware for Web connection.
  • An immediate indication of the impact on hospital finances and rapid ROI.
  • Applicability to diverse healthcare facilities and uses.

The twist: Bluetooth in asset tracking removes the huge costs

Of course, that asset tracking solution known for being wildly expensive is still evolving. Specifically in terms of the technology used. One alternative to Active RFID is Bluetooth. In recent years, Bluetooth tags have become popular in fields that were once dominated by Active RFID tags. They provide roughly the same results—and operate in almost the same manner—but at longer read range and more reasonably priced hardware.

For example, Active RFID readers commonly cost between $1,000 and $5,000. However, a corresponding Bluetooth gateway can cost less than $100.

This Bluetooth tag is capable of doing everything listed above including giving users real-time information on an asset’s location. It’s only up to the solution provider to pair the hardware itself with an app or similar solution, and this is already happening. Most importantly, these solutions will allow hospitals to finally get the real-time data they need and track assets all over the hospital. They can even use such solutions to track patients or staff and create an even safer, more efficient environment.

If your healthcare facility could benefit from leading-edge technology for asset management that is easy to install and scale-up, your first step can be to reach out to Kontakt.io. Talk with our team of experts about the nature of your facility, the problems you would like to address, and how you would like to use a Kontakt.io Real-Time Location System.

schedule a call with our healthcare IOT specialist

Hannah Augur

Content writer / tech blogger / geek based in Berlin. Hannah reports on all things tech and has a medium-sized tolerance for buzzwords.

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    [Updated for 2020]
    [Updated for 2020]