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The Lahey Clinic's RFID Remedy

A top Boston-area hospital has learned that RFID can cure problems associated with tracking and maintaining high-value mobile medical equipment.
By Mark Roberti
Starting on the Wrong Track
Lahey Clinic was a pioneer in deploying RFID for asset tracking in a hospital, and there was no shortage of hiccups in the early stages. The PinPoint tags were large—about the size of a paperback book—making it difficult at times to place them on equipment so that they would not be knocked off or cause problems with a device's operation. Moreover, the system wasn't precise. Assets could be located only within several hundred feet, and the system crashed frequently. Making matters worse, PinPoint went bankrupt in 2001, leaving the future of the tracking system in doubt. (PinPoint's assets were eventually acquired by RF Technologies.)

The project lapsed for about nine months in 2001, until GE Healthcare teamed up with WhereNet, an RTLS system provider in Santa Clara, Calif. WhereNet replaced PinPoint's interrogators, tags and software with its own. Interrogator antennas were installed at key points in hallways, near elevator banks and in utility rooms where laundry is kept and some equipment is stored, so the system could better track the assets' locations.

When the new RTLS system is fully deployed, nurses will be able to go to a secure Web site, enter a password and view a floor plan of the hospital via the Web browser.

GE Healthcare also tagged an additional 500 assets, bringing the total being tracked to 1,000—and, in the IntelliMotion software, associated the unique serial number on each tag with the particular piece of equipment to which it was attached. The software gives hospitals some flexibility in how they categorize equipment. Lahey, for instance, distinguishes between its 250 regular wheelchairs and 20 heavy-duty wheelchairs.

The accuracy of the locating system improves with the number of installed antennas. As a tagged asset comes within range of an antenna, the reader picks up the beacon from the tag. Information about which tag was read, which interrogator read it and the time of the read is then sent to the back-end software system.

The WhereNet system offers several major improvements on PinPoint's technology. For instance, WhereNet's tags are about half the size of PinPoint's, so they can be put on more assets without being knocked off or interfering physically with the use of the equipment. WhereNet's system is also faster and more accurate. "We saw an immediate improvement in our ability to track assets quickly," says Bortone.

Today, when nurses need to find an untagged asset, an extra-large wheelchair, an incubator or an oxygen pump, they either look for it on their own or call the central processing and distribution center, which locates the needed equipment and dispatches it to their location. Either way, it takes time to locate the asset. When the new RTLS system is fully deployed, nurses will be able to go to a secure Web site, enter a password and view a floor plan of the hospital via the Web browser. The system will indicate the location of the equipment, and the nurse will be able to retrieve it quickly. "This will be very advantageous to the nursing staff," says Bortone. "They won't have to run around looking for a unit; they will be able to find things much more quickly."

Currently, information about the location of tagged assets can also be displayed in a spreadsheet-like form. Staff responsible for inventory, and for the central processing and distribution of equipment, can use the form to locate assets quickly throughout the hospital. They can search for all heavy-duty wheelchairs, or for all pieces of equipment in a particular location. Since the inventory and maintenance staffs are intimately familiar with the locations of rooms by number, they can print out lists of where things are and either collect them or check on their condition.

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