RFID and IoT: A smart symbiosis for hospital asset tracking and management

Chief Technology Officer, ScienceSoft

Published:

Smart asset tracking is a buzzword that becomes more and more popular in the healthcare industry. From the outside, it looks like a complicated innovation that may need much time and money to be implemented and adopted. However, it makes sense to study the topic deeper before drawing a conclusion.

In our article, we explain how hospital asset tracking with RFID and Internet of Things works from the inside and what benefits it can bring besides optimized tracking.

rfid and iot in smart hospitals

A quick intro to the technologies

Two core technologies stand behind smart asset tracking in hospitals: RFID and IoT. RFID is used directly for tracking, while IoT enables efficient data storing, processing and analysis.

RFID

Radio frequency identification uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to identify the location of the hospital items carrying special tags with the help of the readers located in hospital corridors, rooms and nearby facilities.

An RFID tag is a chip with the information (unique identifier, electronic product code, and more) and an antenna to send the info to a reader. There are active and passive tags. An active tag has an embedded power source. A passive tag gets the energy from a reader’s electromagnetic radiation. A reader is a device receiving the radio waves from RFID tags located within its reading range. The reader transfers a command and emits energy to activate a tag, and the tag sends its info in response.

IoT

In respect to smart asset tracking, the IoT part is responsible for storing, processing and analyzing the data gathered by RFID readers: the info about hospital items, how they are used and moved.

How RFID and IoT enable smart asset tracking in hospitals

Let’s begin with a brief dive into how RFID and IoT help to perform asset tracking in healthcare facilities.

Hospital items – hospital inventory and durable assets – are equipped with tags. The list of these items may include single-use items (gloves, plastic vials, gauze), linen, bottles and boxes with medication, medical tools and equipment (surgical tools, pumps, monitors) and so on. Tags can be attached to the assets or embedded into them (e.g., in surgical tools). Also it’s possible to attach tags to the boxes containing, for example, medications and single-use items. Readers located in the hospital rooms and corridors (e.g., on the walls, by the doors) send the info about the location of assets. Personnel can track movable assets with a mobile or web app featuring the map of a hospital. When a certain item is needed, a doctor or a nurse makes a request. An IoT system finds the nearest available item (or items) and informs a user about its location.

Benefits for healthcare processes

The ability to automatically track hospital items and further gather and analyze this data helps hospital personnel and administration in many ways.

Automate routine

Automation helps to overcome the drawbacks and limitations of manual asset tracking: low speed, human errors, much paperwork. Here are the examples of how to make use of automating asset tracking and management:

  • Improved drug supply: when a hospital is nearly out of a certain medication, an IoT system can automatically order a new batch.
  • Automated reports on hospital equipment utilization: weekly, monthly and on-demand reports on how different departments use hospital items to identify lacking or underused assets.

Improve visibility into medical assets’ location and availability

According to the survey by Nursing Times, nurses spend at least an hour looking for necessary items during an average hospital shift. No doubt that poor hospital inventory management and distribution of durable assets refers to every healthcare professional working in a hospital and may significantly influence internal processes.

With RFID and IoT, it’s possible to track and visualize assets’ locations and movements in real time reducing equipment search time. It is critical for the assets that come through different teams and departments (for example, thermometers, blood pressure monitors, and stethoscopes).

The records on hospital inventory and durable assets are regularly and accurately updated, which contributes to the speed and quality of hospital inventory management.

Find bottlenecks in internal hospital processes

Smart asset tracking can help to reveal a process stage that gets more load than it can handle and, as a result, significantly slows down the entire workflow. A simple example: if piles of surgery tools are waiting in front of autoclaves, an IoT system generates a corresponding warning. If such a situation happens systematically, it may indicate that sterilization is established in a very ineffective way, and a hospital needs to take measures (for example, installing additional autoclaves can help to increase the speed of sterilizing surgical tools).

Business benefits

A smart hospital asset tracking solution with RFID and IoT helps to enhance a healthcare provider’s business.

Prevent loss and theft of movable assets

With smart tracking, a healthcare organization can reduce the careless use of its property and better protect it from being stolen. When an item with an RFID tag leaves a designated area without authorization (a healthcare organization establishes the details of this procedure and the employees responsible), an IoT system generates an alert notification that informs a hospital security guard about potential theft.

Optimize investments in inventory and equipment

Automated reports on hospital asset utilization can help hospital inventory specialists reduce the number of identical assets that are not used simultaneously with no negative consequences and thus cut down the expenditures on unneeded equipment rental, purchase and maintenance. Avoiding unnecessary expenses, a hospital saves money, which can be invested into buying new advanced tools, e.g., for robotics surgery.

Drive staff productivity and job satisfaction

When there is no need to manage tracking-related issues manually, prepare numerous reports on using items and equipment and spend precious time to find needed assets sterilized and ready to use, hospital personnel gets the opportunity to focus directly on healthcare services. Thus, doctors and nurses don’t get distracted from the working process and their job functions.

Forecast demand

Continuously gathering and efficiently mining the data about how hospital assets are used (for example, applying advanced analytics and machine learning), it’s possible to predict which items should be included into the next asset purchase. Also, a health organization can use this data to better plan the number of assets to buy for a new healthcare facility in case of growth.

Challenges and concerns of smart asset tracking adoption

Although RFID and IoT are rather promising in improving healthcare asset management, there are important points to consider if a healthcare facility plans to establish smooth and effective smart asset tracking.

RFID may influence medical processes

RFID may influence the performance of medical equipment (e.g., defibrillators, pacemakers, dialysis machines). Passive tags only reflect the energy from readers, and the possibility that they will influence medical processes is low. With active tags that emit radio waves themselves, the situation is more complicated. For effective RFID hospital asset tracking, it’s necessary to place RFID readers and medical equipment in such a way that they do not to influence each other (for example, to avoid installing an RFID reader near a radiology machine).

Another issue worth considering is that a tag located in a wrong place may affect a tool’s ability. In this respect, for example, it’s better to use inbuilt tags for surgery tools instead of the ones attached to the surface of the tools.

Daily hospital operations may affect RFID tags

Hospital assets undergo regular sterilization, and some items (like surgical tools (scissors, clamps, scalpels, retractors), towels, bedsheets and more) should be disinfected daily. RFID tags attached to hospital equipment need to be resistant enough to high temperatures in autoclaves to survive this process.

Overall costs may be unexpectedly high

To enable effective smart asset tracking, a hospital needs to invest in tags, software, RFID infrastructure maintenance and personnel training, to name a few. Although a single tag may be not very expensive (usually from 5 cents to about $ 10), the overall price scales up dramatically considering the number of tags a facility usually needs. Hospital administration should carefully plan how it will resort to smart asset tracking, since internal processes will need changing, and align it with its IT and business strategies. In some cases, the assistance of third-party consultants may be needed.

Smart asset management has potential cyber security risks

Tracking sensitive healthcare data is a serious concern for both healthcare providers and patients. Transmitted data should be stored in secure HIPAA-compliant databases and protected from misuse. An additional difficulty is that information security in IoT is a relatively new area for security specialists, and this field still requires research. At first sight, it may seem that there is nothing special in the data about how hospital items are used and moved. However, this data will be incomplete without, for example, the data about the doctor or the nurse using the item and, in some cases – about the patient who will be operated on.

To sum it up

RFID and IoT help to leave error-prone manual hospital asset management behind making the process more stable and effective. Automated asset tracking is relevant not only to medical equipment but also to a great variety of the inventory used by every hospital: gloves, towels, blankets, and more.

 The list of operational and business benefits is rather impressive:

  • Tracking healthcare equipment scattered across different departments and even hospitals.
  • Reducing hospital inventory volumes and improving asset availability.
  • Identifying weak spots in hospital processes.
  • Reducing and preventing asset loss and theft.
  • Improving investments in new assets.

It also deserves to mention that smart asset tracking needs a corresponding infrastructure – equipment for RFID tracking and a secure IoT system. The system provides data gathering, storing, processing and analysis (including advanced analytics) and enables hospital personnel and administration to conduct asset management with special mobile and web applications.

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