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HCA North Florida Expands Its RTLS to Track Patients

The hospital group, having already deployed active RFID to monitor the whereabouts of movable assets, will use the technology to keep tabs on its patients.
By Beth Bacheldor
Sep 14, 2007After two years of testing active RFID technology for use in tracking assets at several of its hospitals, HCA North Florida Division is expanding its RFID-based real-time location system (RTLS). The organization, consisting of nine hospitals in northern Florida and eight in southern Georgia, now wants to test the technology, combined with 2-D bar-coding, to track patients. Its goal is to improve patient care, patient safety, hospital operations and workflow.

HCA North Florida is part of Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), one of the country's largest providers of health-care services. Nashville-based HCA is composed of 173 locally managed hospitals and 108 outpatient centers in 20 U.S. states, as well as England and Switzerland. Founded in 1968, HCA was among the nation's first hospital companies; it currently employs about 180,000 people and reported revenues of $25.56 billion in 2006.

The North Florida division is employing 433 MHz active RFID tags and readers, made by RTLS provider Agility Healthcare Solutions, to track the locations of numerous assets, including infusion pumps, wheelchairs, beds and thermometers. "We are tracking anything that moves," says In Mun, the organization's VP of research and technology. The RFID hardware uses a proprietary air-interface protocol and is already in place at several of the organization's hospitals, though Mun declines to identify the sites involved at this time.

Since deploying the RTLS, Mun says, HCA North Florida has cut the time required to locate equipment and improved the overall management of leasing contracts, equipment maintenance and warranties. "In hospitals like ours, engineers can spend more than 30 or 40 percent of their time simply looking for equipment," he explains, adding that without RFID, items are typically identified only through bar codes, which require line-of-sight reads to determine an asset's specific information, such as maintenance schedules. "And when you have hundreds of items, like we do, trying to find them all can basically be an impossible task."

The asset-tracking RTLS has enabled Mun and his colleagues to better understand RFID technology, and to determine what works best for the organization's facilities. For example, the division tested Wi-Fi-enabled RFID systems but discovered the technology wasn't the best choice. "A [Wi-Fi-based RTLS] is designed to manage a few items per access point—20 to maybe 50 items," Mun says. "But if you go into a medical service area, there might be a hundred or more items there, so that area becomes a black hole."

The Wi-Fi systems Mun and his colleagues tested employed active tags requiring relatively large batteries (about the size of a credit card), making the tags too bulky to fit on thermometers and other small items. HCA North Florida also tested passive RFID, but Mun says the technology did not provide reads as reliable as those achieved with active RFID.

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