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RFID Frees Up Patient Beds
St. Vincent's Hospital deployed a patient-tracking and real-time clinical information system that improved the quality of care, increased revenues and delivered an ROI.
According to Buchwald, nurses readily accepted the patient-location system, in large part because it is so easy to use. "We didn't have any push-back with the system," she says. "They didn't think we were asking them to learn a new tool." Since there is no data entry, the only training required was a 15-minute orientation conducted right in the nursing unit. Posted near every screen are legends explaining the icons and color codes.
Within six months of the pilot rollout, the system was introduced throughout the hospital except for the maternity ward, where staff members had reservations about the aesthetics of the display screens in rooms designed to evoke a feeling of hominess. But that resistance has been overcome, and the system is now being installed in the maternity ward. Outpatients who visit the hospital's diagnostic center are also being tracked with the Radianse tags, which are clipped on to their clothing. This allows the staff to monitor the flow of patients and take action if any backups or bottlenecks occur.
St. Vincent's has about 140 interrogators and slightly fewer than 500 tags, Pantano says. The hospital has room-level coverage in several of its labs and zone-level coverage in the nursing units. Therefore, patient location is pinpointed within a range of four to six rooms.
The entire project cost an estimated $1.7 million, including the PCs, software, RFID tags, interrogators, installation and integration, and it quickly reaped results. The number of patients discharged by noon—a key measure of operational efficiency for the hospital—climbed from about 20 percent to about 40 percent. Moreover, Meadows says, fewer patients are being turned away for lack of beds: Patient diversions dropped by 25 percent in the critical-care unit and 60 percent among medical-surgical beds.
The hospital estimates that it was able to serve more patients using the RFID system, for a net revenue increase of $2.58 million during the pilot phase. And the revenue gains have continued, with the hospital taking in an additional $5.5 million between March and July 2005. The 12-month ROI for the project was 151 percent, according to the hospital.
While the reviews of the project are universally positive, there have been occasional bumps. At times, the access points required fine-tuning, with RFID readings "bleeding through" from one floor to another. "We've addressed that," Buchwald says.
As hospitals come to understand the value of patient visibility and the relatively quick payback of RFID systems, more will embrace the technology, predicts Joseph Dalton, senior technologist with Intel's Innovation Centre. "RFID has the ability to transform unstructured, chaotic business processes," says Dalton, who has developed models for using RFID in health care. According to Stettheimer, Ascension Health is now looking to expand the use of RFID to some of its other hospitals and plans to deploy the Awarix-Radianse system at its Middle Tennessee Medical Center in Murfreesboro.
St. Vincent's has plans to test a wireless asset-tracking project for its medical equipment in July, but it will use Wi-Fi instead of RFID to leverage its investment in the wireless LAN. In addition, the pilot will provide an idea of which technology—RFID or Wi-Fi—best suits its needs for different applications.
But Stettheimer says technology alone won't improve the hospital's bottom line. Better processes and training, he maintains, will determine how much the technology helps: "If you just jump at a technology and don't change your processes, you don't gain much value. Processes and technology have to be linked together."
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