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Health-Care Facilities Embrace RFID

Many hospitals that deployed RFID for a single application, such as tracking expensive medical equipment, quickly realized benefits and a return on their investment. Now, they're broadening their use of the technology to rein in costs and improve patient care.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Oct 01, 2010Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center, a five-hospital facility in Greenville, S.C., had a persistent and costly problem: losing or misplacing expensive medical equipment. It's a common problem at hospitals both large and small, and Greenville officials learned that other facilities were solving it with radio frequency identification. So in 2008, they began using RFID to track their high-end equipment.

The first application, deployed at Greenville Memorial Hospital, involved RFID-tagging 600 pieces of mobile equipment in a 32-room operating suite—including infusion devices, OR tables, stretchers and X-ray machines—with active Wi-Fi tags, leveraging the Wi-Fi network in the operating suite. "We were able to tag those devices and simply pull up their whereabouts on a computer screen at any given time and locate them in a matter of keystrokes," says John Mateka, executive director of Greenville Hospital's materials service group. "It saved us a lot of time and frustration and it improved productivity."

It also saved Greenville a substantial amount of money, by delaying purchases of "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of replacement equipment, Mateka says. The hospital saw a return on its RFID investment in less than a year. Greenville administrators were so impressed with the results that they decided to expand their use of RFID to track 5,000 devices hospital-wide, including small surgical devices with less expensive passive tags, so those items didn't "inadvertently get thrown in the trash," Mateka says.

Greenville plans to roll out RFID asset tracking to its four other hospitals over the next six months. In addition, the medical center is working with its IT consultant, Integrated Business Systems and Services, to develop an RFID application to assist in scheduling and tracking OR patients. The goal is to give surgical patients an RFID-enabled bracelet or badge upon admission, so the hospital can gather data on how long it takes them to go through pre-op procedures, surgery, post-op and discharge to patient rooms. "Now when a patient comes in, we will have a mechanism to manage the throughput of our patients and have a good idea how long a surgery will take," Mateka says. "It will also allow us to improve customer service. If a patient is in the waiting-room OR area more than 15 minutes, we can have an alert on the software that lets the staff know so they can take the appropriate action."

Greenville's story is not unique. Many health-care facilities that first deployed RFID to track wheelchairs and other assets, reducing the need to replace lost equipment, are using their ROI to expand coverage to other areas of the hospital or to fund new applications that cut costs, increase revenue or improve patient care. RFID is helping hospitals automate processes to improve inventory management, manage medical-equipment maintenance schedules, monitor temperature-sensitive medicines and alert housekeeping when patients are discharged, to facilitate room turnover. "It's adding visibility to invisible processes," Mateka says.
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