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Healthcare Leaders Need More Guidance on Which Real-Time Location Systems are Best

Time is of the essence in healthcare. Every second counts. That’s why it’s harder than one might think to quantify the true value of real-time technology systems (RTLS). We can calculate how many minutes or hours clinicians currently spend each day searching for staff, patients, equipment, supplies, specimens, drugs and more. We can then determine how much time is saved with RTLS guiding them directly to the right place. Yet, the benefit of recovered time is a more qualitative metric and one which we must factor alongside the real hard numbers tied to capital expenses and equipment rental costs when considering the potential return on investment (ROI).

Rikki Jennings (BSN, RN, CPN), Chief Nursing Informatics Officer, Zebra Technologies

Although healthcare is an extremely rewarding career, it’s also a mentally, physically and emotionally taxing experience. As a clinician, fearing that you can’t provide the care a patient needs because you can’t find the right equipment quickly enough takes its toll, and the panic that ensues when you can’t locate a patient is intense. Even a single incident will live with you forever. Of course, if a patient feels neglected because they had to wait an hour to be “found,” they can be emotionally and mentally scarred, too, not to mention physically at risk. The increased bedside presence of a nurse can help reduce patient falls and the prevalence of infection. And, in case of emergencies, being able to account for everyone in the building in a split second can dramatically improve outcomes.

These are among the many reasons why healthcare administrators are seriously looking at RTLS systems right now. Nine-in-10 hospital decision-makers who participated in a double-blind Healthcare Vision Study commissioned by Zebra in 2021 say they will accelerate spending on location solutions in 2022.

Why Now is the Perfect Time to Improve “Time and Motion” Measurements

Healthcare system leaders can’t afford for front-line teams to lose sight of patients or assets. They need things to run smoothly. Flustered clinicians are distracted clinicians who will eventually turn into frustrated and discouraged clinicians. Plus, operations managers must be able to track and easily replenish critical equipment and supplies to avoid shortages. They can’t count on doctors and nurses to accurately report utilization, and it’s not beneficial to the hospital or patients to pull clinicians for inventory counts when a fixed RFID reader can complete them automatically. Clinicians already spend far too much time on tasks that could be delegated to others – or technology.

What, then, can administrators do?

Automate time-intensive workflows such as asset tracking and inventory management. Both radio frequency identification (RFID) and Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE) solutions can provide pinpoint location accuracy for people and equipment, expedite asset retrieval, and record utilization of consumables and disposables. These same solutions can also help with patient and worker safety, as well as people flows.

For example, it may be protocol to scan a patient’s wristband every time they’re moved from one place to the next. But what happens if someone forgets to scan? How does the next care team member know where the patient was left or last seen? Without RTLS, they don’t – at least not without a lot of phone calls and walking.  

Things get even more complicated when it comes to locating wheelchairs, IV pumps, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. Barcode scans, once again, will only tell you that something is in stock – or was at some point in the past. They won’t tell you what’s on hand now, much less where it is. Phone calls won’t help, either, as there aren’t people available to answer in every room, hallway or supply closet where equipment and supplies may be located. And without RTLS, it’s impossible to pinpoint the current shelf location of items, especially if they were misplaced by the last person.

That’s why phlebotomists say it’s common for them to, quite literally, look for a needle in a haystack. Even a well-stocked supply closet may be disorganized, making it hard to locate a box of certain-sized syringes. Pharmacists, nurses, porters, and equipment managers don’t have it any easier. A well-labeled pharmacy still has hundreds of pill bottles that start to look alike. And even larger items like wheelchairs are hard to locate when there are dozens of supply closets and five times as many patient rooms, hallways, and other hiding places. It’s well reported that nurses can spend over an hour each shift looking for equipment and supplies.

But, again, it’s the minutes and seconds that count.

How much longer does a patient have to wait for a diagnostic test to be run or treatment to be given because the necessary supplies, medical devices or medications couldn’t be found? That’s not something easily determined without RTLS, mainly because it’s hard to quantify how much time could be saved with location technology until it is installed, and you can objectively measure the time it takes for each action. Similarly, without RTLS systems in place to establish a credible baseline, it’s difficult to say how much extra time a patient stays in the hospital, or a nurse stays on shift, simply because of inefficient workflows and people flows. Subjective comments like, “I’ve been here for hours” won’t help us figure out if every hour was warranted. We must see people in motion to understand the time taken for each motion.

That’s why I was glad to learn hospital leaders are prioritizing RTLS within the next year for the sake of “patient flow” and “staff operational efficiency.” We must ensure people aren’t in hospitals any longer than they must be, no matter why they are there in the first place. And we must be able to get people out immediately in emergency situations, no matter who or where they are. Likewise, we must ensure we always have the right people, in the right places, at the right time – including staff and patients.

How to Locate the Right RTLS

Searching for the right RTLS in the open market can feel just as hard as searching for medical devices inside your four walls. That’s why you’ll need a combination of market research and expert consultation to ensure you’re choosing the right location solution for your situation. It’s possible you’ll benefit from RFID for streamlined inventory management and compliance reporting and BLE for patient and staff traceability. Then again, an RFID wristband may help improve patient tracking. But you won’t know that if you don’t sit down with someone who can define the value of RTLS in the context of your clinical environment.

So, please don’t try to diagnose your workflow, patient flow, inventory management or even safety issues alone. Bring in experts who understand healthcare and how to use location technology as both a diagnostic and treatment tool. You may learn that even your non-clinical workflows, such as dry cleaning, could be safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective with the help of location technologies. Or you could see how improving your linen tracking process will improve room turnover times and bed availability. Either way, you’ll have someone who can help you see what might be missing from your location solution so you can get on track.

If you want to be sure you have found the right advisor for this important initiative, ask about their credentials. Not just their awards, but their real-world success stories. Talk to other healthcare system administrators, IT project leads and clinicians about their experiences with the technology solution provider and the technology itself. Also ask the solution provider about the lessons they have learned along the way. If someone claims they’ve always gotten things right the first time, keep shopping.

I can tell you as both a clinician and technologist that every healthcare technology implementation is a learning experience. It’s why we don’t just map out the strengths and weaknesses of current systems, such as barcode-only track and trace and inventory management systems. We must always define the opportunities and threats for proposed solutions because, if we don’t, we may not be able to anticipate “the unknown.” A good advisor will also admit that agility and flexibility are necessary with every project and even push you to account for the unforeseeable when designing the solution framework and overall project scope. They know it will be critical to continuously assess success and adapt accordingly.

So, once you have found the right technology advisor, someone who can both answer and ask the tough questions, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and look beyond your initial scope. Your line of sight will change, as will others’ view on location systems. Don’t be afraid to adjust and do solicit ideas about how the technology can be used to solve problems that you may not have prioritized initially. You might find that you have a stronger ROI out of the gate than you expected and a better perspective on what’s actually happening across your healthcare system. That makes it so much easier to make the changes you need to keep staff and patients safe and happy.