By Arvid GomezSoapboxMarch

Today, the United States is the leading user of real-time locating (or location) systems (RTLS). The technology is being steadily adopted, primarily in hospitals, but also among forward-thinking long-term care and assisted living facilities. Today, the percentage of hospitals in the US with systems is roughly 20%, compared to only 5% in Europe. While adoption there has been tepid, there is an expectation among analysts that it will see an appreciable rise over the next few years. Annual growth of RTLS use in the US is expected to be in the 20% range annually, making RTLS a leading new health care technology.

A significant percentage of hospitals are installing RTLS systems on a department-by-department basis in key areas where the need is significant and the return on investment (ROI) most rapid—primarily in emergency departments and ORs. The majority of those facilities plan to take RTLS enterprisewide and integrate these hardware systems with sophisticated software systems. This will give the facility not only broad command and control capabilities, but also powerful analytical tools to understand how assets and staff are being utilized toward improved operations, and ultimately better patient care. Awareness of RTLS and its many benefits is growing, and the adoption rate is very likely to accelerate as hospitals see proof of concept that RTLS is in fact enhancing operational efficiency, improving patient-related processes, and providing a rapid and significant ROI.

Fundamental Functionality

Approximately 60% to 70% of RTLS deployments today are used to track patient care equipment. This application empowers providers to optimize asset utilization, reduce equipment losses and rental costs, as well as reduce the need for new purchases and improve preventive maintenance compliance. It is already, according to most users, saving significant staff time and general throughput as staff no longer has to “hunt and peck” for key equipment like patient monitors and infusion pumps. Whether equipment, staff, or patients, RTLS enable health care facilities to visualize the location of their “mobile objects” in real time.

A Deeper Dive on Asset Management

Hospitals typically turn to RTLS because they need to improve their asset management. This arena is where RTLS yield the quickest ROI: They help optimize equipment usage, identify staff needs more quickly, and track equipment location down to the room level. It is also a powerful tool for preventing theft.

In general, hospitals carry a 20% to 30% surplus of expensive equipment (whether purchased or rented) and lose 1% to 5% of their equipment every year through theft or misplacement. After implementing RTLS as asset-management solutions, hospitals typically see their associated hard-dollar investment in equipment decrease by 20% to 30%. In fact, one of the key benefits of RTLS equipment tracking is that hospitals can “right size” their equipment inventory.

After implementing RTLS, hospitals typically see their associated hard-dollar investment in equipment decrease by 20% to 30%.

Equipment maintenance is another vital part of the puzzle. Maintaining medical devices and technology is crucial from an efficiency standpoint, but truly paramount in terms of patient safety. There is little worse than an avoidable equipment malfunction during a critical patient situation. An effective RTLS solution helps prevent such tragedies by notifying hospital maintenance staff when equipment needs repair and, just as important—telling them where to find it.

Before hospitals institute RTLS solutions, it is not uncommon for their nurses to spend up to 2 hours per shift simply looking for equipment. Eliminating that search time not only saves hospitals soft dollars, it significantly increases staff satisfaction. Indeed, in talking to staff about how they keep track of equipment, one of the more common—and disturbing—responses is, “I’m hiding the equipment I know I normally need during a day in a secret closet, so I know where to find it when I need it.”

Before hospitals institute RTLS solutions, it is not uncommon for their nurses to spend up to 2 hours per shift simply looking for equipment.

The costs of such practices are huge. When health care professionals feel as though they have to horde necessary equipment, the hospital faces serious issues on two fronts:

1)  Bad investments in unnecessary equipment.

2) The possible jeopardizing of patient care.

RTLS are a cost-effective solution to both situations.

After solving the asset-management issue, the next steps include driving workflow improvements, such as organizing nurse calls, optimizing staff levels and utilization, and driving compliance in areas such as hand hygiene. Today, RTLS are even enabling infection control, which is being pioneered in a major Toronto hospital system. Time will only tell how the industry innovators will put the technology to work. 24×7 Soapbox, March 2013

Arvid Gomez has more than 10 years of experience in IT security. He is the president of Sonitor Technologies Inc, Reston, Va, an ultrasound-based RTLS provider for health care. For more information, contact the editor.