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Connected health: How digital sensors can reduce theft and misuse in hospitals while improving patient safety and staff productivity

Susmit Pal, Healthcare Strategist, Healthcare & Life Sciences, Dell EMC

In a perfect ecosystem of connected health, hospital assets from medical devices and equipment to tagged disposables, are all connected wirelessly to a secure network. While the obvious benefit is improved patient safety and efficient,  streamlined care, another benefit is in the ability to reduce the rate of theft and misuse through better asset management.

Asset theft and misuse within the healthcare industry

The high costs to replace lost or stolen medical assets are substantial. Some estimate that the value for lost or stolen assets can exceed $4,000 per bed per year, rising to $8,000 when adding in replacement costs. A similar study by VHA, Inc. estimated that theft alone costs hospitals across the U.S. upwards of $52 million per year.[1]

Patients and their hospital visitors are common perpetrators of equipment theft. A hospital in Bremerton, WA, reported that a patient treated in the ER stole $850 worth of equipment, including a digital thermometer, blood pressure cuffs, and a bed alarm pad.[2] Another patient stole a heart monitor worth $1,000.[3] Not surprisingly, staff also contribute to theft. Just recently in the greater Chicago area, a physician was charged with stealing more than $200,000 worth of equipment from Northshore hospitals.[4]

Although these costs are high, there is a much greater cost associated with medical device theft – that of stolen medical identities. In fact, the act of stealing medical devices with the intent of selling personal information has become such a threat that a new name has been assigned to it. It’s now referred to as “medjacking”, and it’s attracting the attention of cybersecurity experts around the globe.

While theft is a serious concern, it represents only a fraction of the total economic loss that hospitals experience in regards to assets. Other sources of loss, such as misplacement and misuse, are also common occurrences.[5] Consider a wound vacuum system, which can cost around $25,000. Because it’s small and easily overlooked, staff cleaning up after a procedure may accidentally throw it in the trash. In fact, some estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of implanted medical devices are “lost in inventory” each year. In a market worth $73 billion, that could result in yearly losses above $14 billion.[6]


Hospitals are looking to inventory management systems like real time locator systems (RTLS) to help address these significant costs and risks. RTLS track equipment using an integrated platform combining RFID digital sensors, software, analytics and system-wide wireless networking.

While the cost to setup and properly implement an RTLS system can be high, most hospitals using it see a return on investment (ROI) in less than a year.[7] In fact, one hospital managed to cut inventory supply of regularly used items by 23 percent.[8] Still another hospital that employed RTLS helped eliminate waste by realizing that many of their wound vacuum systems were literally walking out the door. The system alerted them to the devices leaving the hospital, and staff discovered that patients were inadvertently wearing the costly devices when discharged. These alerts saved the hospital $50,000 in the first week of the program.[9]

Training and oversight: key elements to improved patient safety and staff productivity

True of any digital technology; however, is it is only as effective as the people and processes behind it. Proper training, governance and oversight are required. When employed properly, RTLS has the ability to improve patient safety and staff productivity. Most importantly by:

  • Tracking expiration dates, avoiding mistakenly using expired or obsolete devices and pharmaceuticals
  • Helping to prevent medjacking through automated monitoring and alerts
  • Automatically reordering supplies, reducing time spent inventorying assets and ensuring that stock is never depleted, especially in busy departments like the ER
  • More accurately accounting for high-volume assets such as drug kits in hospital pharmacies and surgical equipment in the operating room – a department that accounts for upwards of 30 percent of a hospital’s waste[10].
  • Improving communications across departments, helping staff to quickly identify and locate needed equipment that tends to be distributed hospital-wide, such as IV pumps and wheelchairs.

Connected health

The benefits of digital sensor technologies like RTLS are clear enough at the micro level. They offer hospitals sound, cost-effective solutions to problems of theft, misuse and inventory management, along with added benefits to patient safety and staff productivity. The bigger question is ‘are digital sensor technologies like RTLS helping to make the broader vision of a connected health system a reality – one that relies on a web of intelligent communication and actionable information-sharing in order to improve patient care and health outcomes?’ It would appear so, but time will tell.