RTLS Technology Helps Outpatient Care Facilities Meet COVID-19 Challenges

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By Susan Martin

At a time when there is continued pressure for greater operational efficiency and growing uncertainty about the future of care delivery, healthcare organizations are looking for solutions to help meet the challenges of the evolving outpatient point of care ecosystem. The urgency has been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on financial recovery, patient confidence and safety. 

Advanced technology and greater connectivity are creating a growing amount of historical and real-time data that can provide greater insight into how outpatient facilities are being used. Real-time locating system (RTLS) technology is enabling caregivers and healthcare organizations to capture and harness that actionable data to transform ambulatory care. 

RTLS technology, which has been providing value in acute care environments for decades, makes capturing accurate workflow data possible, communicating in-the-moment patient and staff locations, wait times and staff interactions, as well as a vast amount of retrospective detail. Badges worn by patients and staff, and tags affixed to equipment, communicate with a sensory network installed throughout a facility. Care teams are empowered to make informed decisions at every step of the patient visit thanks to this connectivity. 

Following are five important ways RTLS technology is transforming the outpatient point of care ecosystem and helping caregivers meet some of the new challenges presented by COVID-19.

1. Ensure social distancing with direct-rooming and on-stage/off-stage workflows

Considering COVID-19 and social distancing, replacing the waiting room with a direct-rooming or self-rooming approach has been gaining attention to minimize the transmission of contagious diseases and exposure to contagions. It also creates an opportunity to introduce new clinic spaces that are more conducive to direct revenue-generating care delivery, such as additional lab space, more exam rooms, dedicated telehealth rooms, or even a multi-functional procedure room.

The concept is simple—patients check-in for their appointment and receive an RTLS locator badge. Because RTLS software gives visibility to all patients and room usage in the clinic, check-in staff can easily identify and assign the patient to a clean exam room. The patient proceeds directly to the room and the RTLS automatically notifies the care team of the patient’s arrival.

2. Bypass the waiting room to reduce patient exposure to possible contagions

The concept of self-rooming is popular with patients. A 2015 pilot study examining the feasibility of a patient self-rooming process found that 95 percent of participating patients “preferred being checked in and proceeding directly to the exam room (self-rooming or direct-rooming) as compared to conventional rooming.” 

3. Facilitate social distancing with on-stage/off-stage workflows

The linear design of ambulatory care environments—crowded hallways, multi-purpose rooms, lack of privacy—is often not conducive to social distancing. An on-stage/off-stage model helps to separate caregiver work zones from patient-facing areas, providing dedicated corridors to dual-entry exam rooms where patients and caregivers enter from different sides.  

This concept contributes to greater flexibility of exam room usage as capacity needs require. 

Without the visibility that RTLS technology provides, an on-stage/off-stage model can become difficult to manage. RTLS makes it easier to determine patient locations and stages of care, so caregivers know who to see and where to go next.

4. Automate contact tracing

While RTLS technology can enhance workflow to help minimize exposure to contagions in common areas, the technology can also automate the contact tracing process, making it easier for staff to identify exposures to contagions.

When staff and patients wear RTLS locator badges, organizations can easily identify those who have been exposed to contagious individuals. RTLS can identify who needs to take additional measures to minimize further exposure and spread. The data not only tells administrators who was potentially exposed, but also for how long—powerful evidence to support exposure control. 

Administrators can replace much of the labor-intensive manual contact tracing process by simply running an RTLS report that helps quickly identify who the contagious individual came in contact with, where in the facility they were and what equipment was used.

5. Enhance new workflow designs

In traditional ambulatory environments, patients may move throughout the facility, often for diagnostic testing or other ancillary services. Many facilities today are taking a patient-centric approach to care delivery with the Collaborative Care Model. By allowing the patient to remain in one location during the visit, caregivers can easily collaborate on the patient’s care plan while decreasing the patient’s overall length of stay. 

RTLS technology enhances this model by facilitating greater visibility and management of processes. This enables multiple caregivers to identify the exact location of patients and outlines the steps that need to take place during the visit. Intelligent rule sets combined with location data enable the technology to automatically communicate which caregivers have seen the patient and who may need to see the patient next. 

Services at a New York-based multi-specialty clinic are co-located within care pods staffed with doctors, nurses, phlebotomists and radiology technicians. The health center reports that, as a result of this collaborative care approach, 85 percent of its patients have their medical visit and blood drawn, make follow-up appointments, pick up their medications and leave the building within one hour.

The Dynamic Room Assignment Model improves workflow by eliminating the “physician-owned” exam room. Patients and caregivers are assigned to the first-available room for better space utilization and reduced patient wait times. This fluid allocation of resources provides the flexibility to deal with unexpected patient emergencies, walk-in patients, or, in certain cases, the extra capacity can be used to bring in additional physicians or allow for specialist visits to be added to the schedule.  

RTLS technology allows registration staff to consult floorplan views in order to determine which exam rooms are available; staff receive real-time cues when a visit is complete, and the exam room needs to be disinfected. As a result, clinics achieve greater exam room utilization compared to more traditional facilities where providers have their own dedicated rooms. Clear visibility to the status of an exam room is essential for this model to succeed.

RTLS technology and the greater availability of data is changing how care is delivered by better positioning outpatient facilities to meet some of the challenges presented by COVID-19. By implementing the technology, healthcare organizations can more effectively utilize new workflow designs, automate contact tracing efforts and support social distancing measures. 

For more information on workflow design trends gaining popularity in the outpatient space, access our “Outpatient Workflow Design Trends: Transformations Fueled by Technology” white paper today.

Susan Martin is Vice President of Midmark RTLS.

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