The amount of medical equipment and supplies used in modern patient care is on the rise. With this increase in assets comes the need for effective health systems management tools. By incorporating IoT solutions into existing hospital IT systems, healthcare organizations spend less time tracking assets, reduce operational costs, save human effort, and improve the quality of care delivery.
Smart medical asset tracking, in particular, saves nurses hours of manually searching for blood glucose monitors and syringe pumps. Tracking systems that detect asset location in real time can also protect hospital supplies from being stolen. This year, anxiety over the COVID-19 outbreak has triggered some people to steal respirator masks and other medical equipment from hospitals.
A Look from the Inside: How IoT-based Asset Management Systems Work
Physical healthcare assets include medical equipment, infrastructure, and even staff. Two major technologies that help implement smart asset management are RFID and BLE. Hospital tools and equipment enhanced with RFID tags turn into a wealth of data. They help hospital staff find items, track medication availability and expiration dates, automatically replenish supplies, and prevent theft.
BLE beacons, in turn, help design IoT solutions in Healthcare that both pinpoint assets on hospital maps and send notifications to compatible devices. For example, BLE-powered systems can broadcast breakfast coupons at the hospital cafeteria and warn visitors or staff about entering a dangerous area—for example, a “hot” zone where patients with COVID-19 are treated.
1. An RFID-enabled System
RFID technology uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags attached to objects or embedded into them. RFID-based hospital asset tracking relies on hardware pieces such as RFID tags and RFID readers and software, which includes user-facing applications and supporting back-end infrastructure.
An RFID tag used as an asset identifier incorporates a chip and antenna that receives and sends information to an RFID reader. The reader transmits the information gathered from tags within its reading range to an app or to the cloud. Unlike barcodes, tags don’t need line-of-sight reading and can be separated from receivers by hundreds of meters. A desktop or mobile app notifies users about item location, asset movements, and lack of supplies.
A smart asset tracking system requires both the equipment for RFID tracking and an IoT infrastructure to store, process, and analyze the information collected by RFID readers. All data can be stored in the cloud—for instance, in AWS data centers. The Amazon Web Services infrastructure has strong safeguards to protect customer privacy, which is essential when it comes to sensitive medical data.
2. A BLE-powered Solution
The use of Bluetooth/BLE can enhance asset management in terms of finding and tracking items. The technology allows hospitals to tag tools and equipment with BLE beacons. A dedicated mobile app turns on Bluetooth in a smartphone, captures signals from BLE transmitters, and finds BLE-tagged items according to the signal strength and the receiver’s position.
As a more complex solution, real-time locating systems (RTLSs) rely on multiple technology components—i.e., BLE tags attached to movable assets, Bluetooth receivers installed in fixed locations within hospital facilities, and a centralized server. Beacons broadcast signals at regular intervals and receivers capture the data and transfer it to the server, which figures out the asset location.
BLE technology also makes it possible to distribute proximity-based notifications to compatible devices. For example, beacons can trigger sending a link to the hospital facility map when a patient enters the admission desk.
Here’s How IoT Enhances Asset Management in Healthcare
Automated hospital routine. A survey showed that one-third of nurses spend an hour or more per shift looking for medical equipment. This adds up to the loss of about 6,000 hours per month in non-productive work. IoT systems offer automated hospital inventory management instead of manual asset tracking: a dedicated application can assist staff in their search for missing items. The solution immediately checks the availability, location, and status of RFID-tagged syringe pumps, portable ultrasound devices, or blood bags.
With the help of RFID technology, the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington automated their pharmacy kit processing and tracking and eliminated staff errors at the same time. The smart system allowed the hospital to monitor medication supplies “from ordering through dispensing through administration at the bedside”.
Inventory management. Automation, proximity technology, and IoT allow hospitals to build complete systems to manage and maintain various aspects of the hospital environment—i.e., facilities, infrastructure, and medical supplies.
RFID tags can be attached to hospital equipment such as monitors, pumps, and endoscopes, and single-use items like masks, gloves, and vials. It is possible to track the location, history of utilization, and expiry dates of assets and have each item always at hand—available on a web or mobile dashboard. Smart tracking ensures that infected or dirty surgical tools stay away from operating rooms as it’s easy to verify when instruments have been sterilized.
With IoT systems, hospitals can also track and manage various infrastructure systems such as electricity, heating, and air-conditioning and get reports on equipment usage. Automation also helps staff avoid duplicate orders and provide on-time maintenance of medical facilities.
Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in particular, invested in RFID tracking technology to tag and track their medical equipment library, which handles around 42,000 devices with over 185,000 loan days per year.
Asset and resources demand forecasting. According to the GE Healthcare report, hospitals only use 32-38% of the 35,000 inventory stock keeping units (SKUs) they own. Smart tracking systems could help them identify underused or overused medical supplies. A complete IoT solution can not only monitor asset movements between locations, but also record the last user and complete usage history, and, as a result, prevent hospitals from overspending on medical supplies.
Automation also helps hospitals track patient flow to make decisions about the required human resources. The nurses and support physicians at Owensboro Health started wearing RFID trackers to help the health system measure patient and staff costs. The solution gathered insights on nurse activity, calculated the time individual patients needed, and revealed care processes that didn’t add value.
Patient and staff tracking. RFID technology helps monitor patients and staff throughout hospitals. Wristbands for patients can contain encoded information to identify the person, access their medical data, time of visit and cost, monitor movements, and assist visitors in navigating hospital facilities. Wristband identification can also minimize human errors in terms of prescribed medication and appropriate treatment. If needed, tagged wristbands can ensure patient safety—for instance, the system can be programmed to raise an alarm when children, elderly patients, or people in severe medical conditions enter a restricted area.
An example of this is the RFID-powered solution used by the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. The solution helped to reduce patient waiting time and was even able to add more appointments within the existing schedule. The glaucoma clinic had doctors, technicians, medical assistants, and patients wear RFID-tagged IDs to track their location in real time. A dedicated dashboard interface used RRID tracking data to figure out how much time patients and clinicians spent in each room.
Providing RFID tags to staff in wristbands or ID cards helps the administration track the employee’s location within the hospital and easily contact them in an emergency. Minneapolis-based community clinics, for instance, integrated RFID badges to help medical assistants find patients in waiting rooms without announcing their names.
Protecting assets from loss and theft. Poor hospital inventory management practices may result in lost and stolen equipment. The Indianapolis VA Roudebush Medical Center lost more than $1.5 million worth of items between 2014-2016. IoT asset management helps avoid such outcomes in different ways: while RFID tags track asset location within hospital rooms, corridors, and nearby facilities, BLE beacons can warn administration, when medical supplies leave their designated area.
What’s the Bottom Line?
IoT-powered hospital inventorying brings perks to various aspects of the healthcare industry. It enables effective management and maintenance of medical supplies within a standalone hospital. Smart tracking helps reduce the number of identical assets, avoid unnecessary expenses, and prevent items from loss or theft. Automation of hospital routines positively affects staff productivity and influences resource capacity. When personnel focus on healthcare services instead of manually tracking supplies, it ultimately results in a higher quality of patient care.
This post has been sponsored by Softeq
Tatsiana Tsiukhai is a Copywriter at Softeq – a full-stack development company and an Inc. 5000 honoree. We help health facilities overhaul legacy IT systems, automate medical image analysis, and monitor patients’ well-being, as well as offer custom software development services to tech startups working on medical devices.