The Wireless Tipping Point
Hospitals, like many other organizations, are being forced to deliver better services with fewer resources. While achieving the goal of superior performance on a tighter budget is a challenge, technological innovations are enabling healthcare providers to stretch their dollars. Two technologies in particular that are driving workflow improvements in healthcare are wireless networks and radio frequency identification (RFID).
Neither wireless networks nor RFID is a particularly new technology. In fact both have been around for many years. In the past, healthcare providers had concerns about security and privacy issues with wireless and RFID, or they might have considered the technologies luxuries, rather than must-have items. In recent months that posture has changed as hospitals around the world have begun using wireless networks combined with RFID to enable more location-based services that improve workflows and enhance patient care.
Studies show that nurses spend between 20 and 30 per cent of their day looking for people, information or equipment. Location-based technology combining wireless and RFID can make the connections between people, information and equipment more seamless and allow nurses and other healthcare professionals to perform their jobs more efficiently.
There are already many examples of RFID technology helping hospitals deploy the right equipment to the right patient at the right time. In the past, hospitals often over-stocked a range of devices such as infusion pumps, wheelchairs, defibrillators and monitors, because the devices could be hard to find and doctors wanted to ensure patients would have access to the equipment as soon as they needed it. Now many hospitals deploy RFID technology in their portable equipment, allowing hospital staff to quickly pinpoint the nearest ready device and get it to a patient immediately.
Some RFID tags now include probes which allow them to monitor temperatures. Many types of medication have a short shelf life if they aren’t kept refrigerated, so an RFID tag could help hospitals save valuable medication by alerting staff members to a potential problem in a mobile refrigerator, pinpointing the location of the unit and allowing staff to quickly move the medications.
RFID tags are also being used to improve patient safety. An example of this would be an RFID chip attached to a bracelet, alerting hospital staff of a “wandering” patient who left the premises. Another example would be drug dispensing cabinets. Using RFID technology, healthcare providers could have patient medication in individual drawers, with one drawer for each dose. All the drawers could be locked until the right caregiver came to administer the correct dose at the prescribed time, at which point the correct drawer would open. This would reduce mistakes and ensure patients were getting their correct doses at the right time.
RFID tags can also be used to prevent baby abductions – called a Code Pink in hospital emergency terminology – which aren’t as rare as most people think. To help prevent a Code Pink, healthcare providers could place an RFID tag on a baby’s bracelet and build a rule that says if the child goes into an area they shouldn’t be in at a certain time, a Code Pink alert will be sent to hospital staff. Cameras connected to a hospital’s security system could take high-resolution photos at the point of alert and send images to the nearest security personnel via PDA or IP phone.
Similarly, RFID tags can help in situations where patients may have aggressive tendencies or not get along with particular caregivers. Hospitals could issue RFID bracelets to track at-risk patients and staff. If a patient who didn’t get along with a particular staff member got too close to the staff member, a rule could be set to issue an alert and have the staff member move away to a safe area.
These RFID use-cases aren’t commonplace in hospitals now, but within a few years many will become standard procedure. Eventually these capabilities will be rolled out not only throughout hospitals, but into the community, emergency vehicles and even the home, allowing healthcare providers to shift the point of care closer to the patient.