As published on Forbes by Ozgur Ulku (4 October 2023)
Despite ongoing advances in medicine itself, healthcare systems today face a wide array of problems, including staff shortages, poor patient outcomes and high costs of care. Strained hospital resources and overburdened workers are, in many cases, both contributors to and casualties of these wide-ranging issues. A 2019 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans viewed the U.S. healthcare system as experiencing “a state of crisis”—and post-pandemic, many of the challenges facing healthcare systems have been exacerbated.
Many of these challenges are, in essence, wicked problems requiring multi-pronged approaches. However, healthcare leaders may find that spatial and geolocating tools offer some potential solutions that, while not alleviating these wide-ranging problems entirely, can certainly mitigate some components. Indoor location tracking technologies, in particular, can ameliorate some specific issues that can be narrowed down to a fundamental question: “Where is this person/this asset right now?”
A quick primer: Indoor location technologies, sometimes referred to as “real-time location services” or RTLS, work on radiofrequency systems, requiring a wireless mesh network and various anchor points; assets (hospital tools, expensive machines) or individuals (high-risk patients, infants, staff members) are then fitted with tags that send signals to the anchors registering their location. The most sensitive tools can achieve location accuracy up to 20 centimeters. Coverage is deployed within a certain area—for the use cases we’re about to discuss, within a hospital setting. Trackers generate a valuable data set, including the asset’s or person’s location and time, which has a range of helpful applications.
Hospital leaders can reduce the risk to their employees by leveraging RTLS along with basic communicators, such as panic buttons or radios. Ideally, when an employee is feeling threatened or already under attack, they can press their panic button, and security or other rescue personnel can be automatically deployed to come to their aid. Using a location tracker in combination with the panic button enables rescue teams to know exactly where to find the staff member under duress—without having to waste critical time searching.
There are also RTLS tools that can determine the distance between two individuals. (These technologies were utilized to facilitate social distancing during COVID.) Some hospitals, particularly those with dangerous patient populations (such as criminal psychiatric wards) are leveraging these distance-gauging tools to be notified whenever someone gets too close to one of their employees—say, when someone gets within six feet, which may indicate a threat to that employee’s safety. In these instances, similar alerts can be set off to automatically deploy security to that employee’s location.
Hospital leaders must consider the very real threats to their staff members’ lives in evaluating these tools, and select those that offer the best protection for their people.
Keeping Track Of Assets
While it may not make as many headlines as staff or bed shortages, hospitals worldwide struggle with equipment loss, theft and damage. Particularly in big hospitals, not knowing where mission-critical assets are located can adversely impact patient health outcomes, costs and satisfaction of both patients and employees.
What if a patient requires a life-saving device such as a ventilator, a defibrillator or a dialysis machine, and it cannot be found quickly? This could result in worsening of the patient’s condition or even their death. Knowing where to find the right tools at the point of care is paramount.
Missing tools and machines drastically impact hospital budgets as well. We’ve worked with hospitals that have ordered more wheelchairs, IV drips, heart monitors, etc., simply because they could not find them—only to have these implements turn up weeks later in some unchecked part of the hospital. Meanwhile, the hospital has already wasted money replacing those assets.
Protecting Vulnerable Patients
“Wander management” is a big concern, particularly in senior and memory care centers. The common problem is that residents of a facility may wander off. This is a challenge: From a regulatory perspective, it is illegal to physically block residents from leaving the center. Yet, when they wander off, the residents often do not know how to return, and unfortunately are prone to being hit by cars or becoming dehydrated or hypothermic.
Administrators for these centers can use RTLS solutions to be notified when a resident approaches the exit gate. While it is not legal to lock the gate, security staff can be alerted that a resident is trying to leave so that they can persuade that resident to stay, or at least send a person to accompany them. In this way, many tragic outcomes can be avoided.
Memory care center administrators may also use these tools to track the socialization of these residents: How much time do they spend socializing? How much time do they spend alone in their rooms? Do they frequent the dining hall? Do they get exercise? These metrics can provide insights that dramatically improve patient care and address potentially problematic health issues.
There is an emerging trend of using RTLS to track patient flow in hospitals: Data from trackers can be used to determine how long a patient spent in the waiting room, how long they waited in an exam room before seeing a provider, how long they were able to interact with that provider, how long they waited for a specific procedure (such as an MRI) and the duration of their visit altogether. The goal of monitoring these data is to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the patient journey that compromise patient care and lead to wasted hospital spending.
Ultimately, healthcare leaders must look with clear eyes at the risks and challenges that their hospitals are facing, and consider what technological investments can best safeguard and support their people, patients and assets. When hospitals gain improved safety and functionality, everyone benefits.