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A Tech-Savvy Medical Organization Gives the Thumbs-Up to RFID

Intermountain Healthcare implemented an RFID system to improve the speed and accuracy of laboratory testing.
By Bob Violino
Sep 14, 2009Intermountain Healthcare, a nonprofit integrated health-care system consisting of 21 hospitals and more than 100 clinics in Utah and southeastern Idaho, is known for its innovative use of technology to improve services. In 2008, the Salt Lake City, Utah-based provider was cited in the annual Hospitals & Health Networks' Most Wired study as being one of the nation's most technology-savvy health-care organizations. It marked the ninth time in 10 years that the survey— a joint project of Hospital & Health Networks, Accenture, McKesson, the American Hospital Association and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives—ranked Intermountain Healthcare among the nation's most wired organizations.

Intermountain has been developing computerized health records since the 1970s, and is now working on a project with GE Healthcare, a unit of General Electric, to develop the next generation of electronic medical records. The company is relying on homegrown clinical systems until the jointly developed system is ready. The health-care provider serves as a strategic development partner of GE Healthcare in building advanced decision-support and knowledge-management tools, as well as other functionality for GE Healthcare's Centricity system, an integrated clinical, financial and administrative system.

Lab analyzer with specimen delivery track in front

In one of its latest forays into technology, Intermountain Healthcare has implemented an RFID system to improve the speed and accuracy of laboratory testing. The company's lab directors and managers took note of research data from a hospital in Montreal indicating that each handoff of a lab sample—from a physician to the courier to the lab, for instance—added approximately 10 minutes from the point of specimen collection to the time it takes for the physician to receive test results. So if the process involved four handoffs—not uncommon in a typical testing scenario—that could mean up to 40 minutes of additional time.

Intermountain officials decided to implement an RFID system to automate the tracking of laboratory samples. "The business drivers for the automation system were our need to increase efficiency, decrease variation in process times and decrease staffing requirements to deal with staff shortages," says Sterling Bennett, medical director of the Intermountain Central Laboratory and chair of the Urban Central Region department of pathology.

Company officials had considered a partial automation solution known as front-end automation, Bennett says, where some of the steps in the testing process are automated and others remain manual. But they opted instead to automate the entire process, he notes, to eliminate all the handoffs.

Intermountain selected the Accelerator Automatic Processing System, manufactured by Inpeco in Milan, Italy, and marketed in the United States by Abbott Laboratories. The system automatically delivers specimens to centrifuges, lab analyzers and storage facilities. It comes with configurable middleware, called Instrument Manager, that manages and tracks the lab's data and is designed to improve operational efficiency, reduce processing errors and help make turnaround times on samples more consistent.

The Accelerator Automatic Processing System was deployed in March 2007 at Intermountain's Central Lab in Salt Lake City, a standalone facility located on the campus of Intermountain Medical Center, Utah's largest hospital. The Central Lab was also designed to handle many of the non-emergency functions of Intermountain's seven laboratories, which are spread along a 100-mile corridor encompassing 80 percent of Utah's population. Bennett says this was done, in part, to create sufficient sample volume to be able to utilize more efficient technology, including the automation system.

According to Bennett, creating the Central Lab and automating the testing processes has enabled Intermountain to increase capacity without adding additional staff. "We were running out of space in our hospital labs, and knew that we would need to introduce new tests to keep up with the requirements of medical care," he says. "We also have a labor shortage, and were looking for ways to do more testing with fewer people."
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