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Podiatry Clinic Steps Into RFID for Tool Tracking

The Surgical Safety Scanner system enables Great Lakes Foot and Ankle Specialists to reduce tool-counting times, prevent the loss of medical instruments, and identify which tools were used in surgery and sterilized—as well as when this occurred.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 18, 2016

Michigan podiatry clinic Great Lakes Foot and Ankle Specialists has automated the tracking of surgical instruments or tools used on its patients via radio frequency identification, in order to speed up the process of packing the tools onto trays, ensure that no instruments are left inside a patient or misplaced, and track their lifespan. The Surgical Safety Scanner system, provided by startup Surgical Scanner, of Brighton, Mich., consists of passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags, handheld readers and software to manage the collected read data. The software also links each tag ID number with a particular instrument's photos, manufacturer, part number and history.

The solution enables the clinic to overcome several challenges, says Jeff Szczepanski, a physician at the facility. Each surgery requires a specific set of tools, but it can be difficult to differentiate between one tool-packed tray and another. Many of the instruments look alike, so the wrong item could end up on a tray unless each tray is double- or triple-checked during the manual packing process. Once a packed tray is wrapped following sterilization, it can also be difficult to determine and confirm which tools are on it. As a result, the wrong tray could be taken to surgery. Additionally, Szczepanski says, the tools are expensive (some priced at $300 to $400) and can end up missing. When this occurs, he adds, tracing back where a particular instrument was lost is often impossible.

An autoclavable Dot XXS or Dash XXS tag is glued or welded to each medical instrument used by Great Lakes Foot and Ankle Specialists.
The Surgical Safety Scanner system has been three and a half years in the works, according to Fred Schoville, Surgical Scanner's president. He developed the technology after speaking with his friend Carol Schmucker, a retired nurse who had identified a problem related to tool tracking. The solution is designed to automate the process of counting and managing surgical instruments and supplies, both before and after surgery and washing cycles.

Initially, the system—which debuted commercially in April 2015—was intended to simply replace a laborious tool-counting process for health-care workers prior to and following surgeries. But the version being employed by Great Lakes Foot and Ankle Specialists, as well as being offered commercially, includes the ability to monitor when tools are used, sterilized and sent for repair, with built-in reminders that are triggered if an instrument is delayed. The system can also determine how often an item has been used.

The manual tracking process is highly time-consuming, however. Surgical Scanner conducted its own testing to find that it usually takes two employees four minutes to count instruments for a typical surgical tray. Once the procedure is finished, the tools must be counted again, which takes longer—usually about 10 minutes, in part because the instruments are dirty and more difficult to identify. On the other hand, the company reports, its own solution requires about 30 seconds for a single worker to accomplish the same task simply by waving a handheld reader over the tray.

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