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A growing number of hospitals are testing the waters of patient- and equipment-tracking technology.

During his son's hospitalization in 2004, Tom Bradshaw had an asset-tracking epiphany. The vice president of operations at Goldsboro, NC-based Wayne Memorial Hospital recalls how the IV pump in his son's room had long since expired. Later, he mentioned the out-of-date pump to the community hospital's biomedical engineer in charge of device maintenance. The engineer was stunned that Bradshaw had stumbled upon the long-missing pump. "They had been looking for it for months," Bradshaw recalls. "I had assumed they could find anything when doing inspections. But they have a heck of a time. The equipment gets moved all over the place."

That sparked Bradshaw's interest in real-time location technology. Late in November 2006, 245-staffed-bed Wayne Memorial became a guinea pig for an asset-tracking system from RadarFind, a North Carolina-based vendor looking to break into the healthcare market with its radiofrequency identification technology. In exchange for testing and refining the technology, Wayne Memorial got a free installation.

Serving as a beta site paid off, Bradshaw attests, adding that the hospital has become a paying customer. Today the facility has some 1,400 medical devices tagged with small gadgets that emit radio signals to readers scattered throughout the facility's 400,000 square feet. And Bradshaw maintains a folder of return-on-investment calculations that underscore the value of the technology—even if the hospital had paid full freight (an estimated $270,000). Despite its success, the community hospital is a bit of a lone wolf in the healthcare industry, where asset tracking has been slow to catch on. "There aren't many Wayne Memorials in the industry," he says.

Despite the newness of the technology in healthcare—which has been used in the retail sector for several years—hospitals are beginning to test the asset-tracking waters. RFID is only one option, as infra-red and ultrasound may also be used. All three use a similar set-up, however. A piece of equipment is tagged with a sensor that responds when pinged by a reader. Some tags, like those in use at Wayne Memorial, are "active," meaning they emit their own signals. Others activate when hit by a signal. Hospitals drawn to asset-tracking technology hope to solve a common industry problem: difficulty in locating expensive equipment or keeping tabs on patients. Asset-tracking technology's potential for cost avoidance, labor savings, and increased efficiency is the big draw.

Virtua Health, a four-hospital system in Marlton, NJ, is embarking on an asset-tracking pilot using ultrasound-enabled technology from Patient Care Technology Systems. According to Linda Chan, IT systems integration manager, Virtua is looking to revamp its asset-management approach in a new hospital that's scheduled to open in 2011. "We will have the equipment centralized in one location and delivered as requested," she says. Virtua is conducting a test now in a pediatric unit and may incorporate the ultrasound-enabled technology into the fold. "There is not that much good ROI data," Chan says.

Not all hospitals looking to deploy tracking technology, however, are leaning on ROI. One of them is Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Systems, which runs three hospitals in the Allentown, PA, area. This past March, Lehigh began using ultrasound technology to track surgical patients. "We began at our largest hospital [Cedar Crest], where we do 14,000 procedures annually," says Brian Leader, vice president of orthopedic and perioperative services. Using ultrasound technology from Sonitor, the system receives a signal from a small device affixed to each patient. That signal is later matched to the patient name, and staff can track the patient's movement through the staging area, into the OR, and finally in the recovery room, adds Chris Mariotti, business manager. Because so many are involved in the process, the system helps streamline work. "We are trying to get everyone to know what is going on simultaneously with real-time information," Leader says.

Lehigh Valley considered RFID technology for its OR effort but turned to ultrasound because of its higher accuracy in pinpointing patient location. The hospital has invested about $600,000 in the technology, Leader says. But as Mariotti points out, Lehigh did not base its purchase on an ROI model. "We wanted to provide better service to physicians and patients," he says. "That will pay dividends." It also eliminates the flurry of pages and phone calls that characterized OR communication in the past, Leader adds. "We had a lot of linear communication."

By avoiding unnecessary purchases of devices, Wayne Memorial has seen the financial benefits of asset tracking, Bradshaw says (see "Find Pump, Save Money," above). There's also a more collaborative spirit engendered by the technology. "The technology has eliminated hording," he says. "People used to hide IV pumps so they knew where to find one. They don't have to hide equipment anymore."

Gary Baldwin

Find Pump, Save Money

Wayne Memorial Hospital has realized substantial financial benefits from its RFID-enabled asset- tracking system. By analyzing pump usage, the hospital trimmed its new pump purchases. It has similar savings in other areas.

Pumps: Planned to purchase 332, but purchased 279 after analysis
Savings: $276,000, plus $27,000 in annual maintenance costs
Wheelchairs: Reduced inventory from 84 to 51, saving $18,000
Bladder scanners: Avoided purchasing two new scanners at $12,000 each

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