Where Did We Put That Wheelchair?

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Asset tracking systems can help hospitals keep tabs on their ever-moving inventory. But one size does not find all.

Devices and equipment can be among the modern hospital's largest cost centers, second only to personnel. But keeping tabs on wheelchairs, monitors and pumps is not easy. A few innovators have turned to real, or near real-time, asset tracking systems to pinpoint the location of all that expensive equipment and keep better tabs on maintenance while avoiding over-supplies. Here are two stories that demonstrate how asset tracking technology built on radio frequency identification can fit in with hospitals' strategic priorities. RFID uses radio signals to monitor the location of equipment tagged with special badges. But as these stories show, exactly which tracking equipment and infrastructure are needed can vary widely.

Tug in the right direction

Two years ago, Moore Regional Hospital introduced three autonomous robots to deliver medications throughout the 230-staffed-bed facility. As planned, the robots wound up supplanting supply transporters and trimming the hospital's payroll, recalls Dave Dillehunt, chief information officer at the Pinehurst, NC-based hospital, part of FirstHealth of the Carolinas.

But little did Dillehunt know that the robots would also set the stage for an RFID-enabled asset tracking system. Each robot can do double duty: As they navigate around the hospital delivering medications and supplies, their RFID antennae are also searching out wheelchairs, IV pumps and compression devices. The devices are equipped with their own tags that provide a unique electronic identification when "pinged" by the robot. "The system doesn't give real-time data in some cases," says Dillehunt. "It may be one to two hours old by the time we get it. But that is adequate for asset tracking."

The system, from Aethon, has worked so well that Dillehunt plans to introduce it in the other two hospitals that comprise 611-licensed-bed FirstHealth. Spurred by the technology's effectiveness, Moore Regional has expanded its robotic fleet. Five of the robots, or "Tugs," have become fixtures at the rural hospital. Armed with a camera and sensor, the robots can summon elevators, find their way around departments, and say "excuse me" when they encounter someone in their way. Four robots deliver medications and supplies; the fifth is devoted to asset tracking.

The system helped Moore Regional overcome some of the obstacles of standard RFID-based systems, Dillehunt adds. Using the robots to transmit the RFID signals meant the hospital would not have to burden its already loaded Wi-Fi network. "We are doing voice over Internet and did not want a lot more traffic on the wireless bandwidth," Dillehunt explains. And compared to building a standalone system, the robot-driven technology was far less expensive; the set-up cost was less than $100,000, much of that going for device tags, says Dillehunt. The CIO did supplement the robotic system with a handful of permanent RFID sensors in the ED and device sterilization room, where equipment monitoring is paramount.

"The central sterile group can call up the asset tracking system and tell how many pumps are in the dirty room, then clean them," Dillehunt says. "Before, we had no consistent way to monitor what devices needed to be cleaned."

Aethon also provided the asset tracking software. The browser-based system shows a blueprint of the department floor, highlighting the location of pumps and other assets by category. That location information downloads into the central system after the robot completes its rounds and returns to its docking station for recharging.

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