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— 9 min read

Real Time Tracking Systems in Healthcare

Keeping tabs on all your medical devices.

Real time location system (RTLS) in health care is a technology that helps track and identify medical devices, assets, and patients. It can be applied to medical devices, lab equipment, medical specimens, clinicians, patients and maybe one day everything in between. RTLS uses identifiable tags that utilize a combination of rfid , wifi technology, location beacons to track medical assets. It might not sound like much but this is just the brink of the internet of medical things. (if IoT couldn’t sound more gimmicky) Being able to manage and track various devices lays the foundation for connected healthcare. With RTLS your devices, patients, and assets can be tracked and analyzed in real time at a floor, room or bed level. The best part is that there are quantifiable benefits to implement RTLS in your healthcare operation. The future of IoT relies on technologies like RTLS that actually improve a business’s bottom line.

How Does RTLS Work

RTLS is relatively simple technology, identifiable tags are placed on a medical device and reference points use the information from the tag to distinguish id and location. These tags can either work by wifi, passive rfid, or active rfid. These tags contain basic information such as device type, id, or patient id. Based on the level of accuracy you want, there are reference points at the bed all the way up to the floor level. For passive rifids a RF transmitter is the reference point that energizes the rfid tags and collects information on the device. So for example, you can have a transmitter at an individual bed that activates a rfid tag on the surrounding medical devices. This will indicate at this bed these are the devices around it. Wi-Fi solutions use triangulation to pinpoint where the asset is based on mapped Wi-Fi access points. There is new technology that utilizes zigbee mesh networks which have the advantage of reducing the demand on the local Wi-Fi. Active tags can also transmit environmental information such as temperature. This is important when you want to see if a sample is maintained at a desired temperature.

The Benefits of RTLS

In an effort to reduce cost and improve the quality of care, hospitals have started to implement RTLS to track and manage their assets. Imagine having the ability to know where all of your medical devices are and see if they are being optimally utilized. This type of technology is widely used in manufacturing settings where time and efficiency is crucial.

As devices in hospitals continue to grow there needs to be an efficient and accurate way to manage all of these assets. By being able to locate devices faster and maximize their utilization, you can reduce the total number of devices you need to have. This will ultimately reduce capital cost as well as device maintenance costs. Additionally, it can increase the efficacy of preventative maintenance by seeing what devices are being used more frequently and where they are located.

RTLS not only helps to keep track of assets they can also track clinicians and patients. This enables powerful analytics to be applied. With these added data points you can then analyze your workflows and find inefficiencies. You will be able to analyze at a higher level what is causing non value added time (NVA). When you reduce NVA you improve patient satisfaction and quality of care.

Security is also an important issue that RTLS can help solve, you don’t want your patient running off with your ventilator or more likely a digital thermometer. RTLS can help alert when your expensive capital is about to leave the building.

More Devices More Problems

Who is going to actually charge and maintain all these devices? As the devices grow in numbers the more people you will need just to manage the system. It might be manageable to take care of 200 devices but more than that you will probably need to hire additional staff. For some operations it can actually be cost ineffective to implement RTLS Additionally some of the benefits cannot be captured on your balance sheet.

Additionally who is going to want to recharge all these devices? As the number of devices grows we need to start thinking of different energy charging sources or it becomes infeasible to maintain. These devices can potentially be charged by energy harvesting technology (solar thermal, mechanical) or wireless charging technology.

The Psychology of RTLS

We tend to behave better when we think we are being watched. One interesting anecdote is that RTLS can be used to play a psychological trick by using nonfunctioning tags. You can think of it as the placebo effect for organization. When people see the tags they assume it is being tracked and put the device in the correct location to prevent themselves from getting in trouble. This might work for a while but staff will catch on pretty fast and you do not get the benefits of real time tracking or analytics.

The Future of RTLS

IoT in the medical field is not some pipe dream, it is making an impact for patients and hospitals today. RTLS has shown that the combination of connected devices and analytics can help gain new insights and efficiencies. Just imagine if these devices are now able to move and act on their own autonomously just like Amazon’s Kiva robots. Medical devices can react based on its surroundings and input from the system such as when there is a patient with a heart attack the nearest crash cart/defibrillator autonomously rushes to the scene. Another technology that I look forward combining with RTLS is augmented reality. RTLS can essentially provide you raw historical data of your healthcare operations. Now imagine that you can use that data to build an augmented reality data visualization application. This will allow you to see the system as a whole or at a granular level so that you can find and fix inefficiencies or gain new insights on your operation. In order to get to that future we need to start small and RTLS is a great first step.