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The Future of Healthcare: Deploying RTLS is More Accessible & Affordable Than You Think

By Mohammed Smadi

The five things that keep facilities management up at night are universal – streamlining operations, improving productivity, loss prevention and employee and consumer satisfaction. 

For those healthcare facilities that can afford it, real-time location services (RTLS) provide a seemingly one-stop resolution to these pain points. Yet only roughly 10-30% of U.S. hospitals have deployed a RTLS system within their facility. 

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Why? 

The cost of deploying existing RTLS hardware systems is expensive, complex, and highly specialized using proprietary hardware, resulting in higher cost per tracked asset and only mild adoption. Moreover, many of today’s indoor wayfinding and tracking solutions tend to degrade in performance because they exist in hardware that must be maintained and even replaced over time.

For the facilities that can afford it, the expense of this kind of system can provide real, measurable results, but for smaller facilities and healthcare systems it feels more like a luxury or “something nice to have”. Yet, the loss of time and money simply spent in locating “things” that are needed, missing or stolen can save healthcare facilities thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

With hospitals potentially losing up to $4,000 per bed each year and one third of nurses spending, on average, one hour simply searching for the equipment or supplies needed for patient care, the industry should embrace more affordable, highly accurate, systems for widespread accessibility and adoption.

The Impact of RTLS on Operations and Perception

When it comes to the benefits of a RTLS system, I often think of a nurse who is frustrated every time she, or he, is looking for equipment or supplies for patient care. The other is a patient in the ER who is growing frustrated waiting to be seen is currently writing a poor review of the hospital online or complaining about it on their social media channel.

These are just two examples of the impact that an RTLS can have on operations, employee satisfaction and patient experience. They can also be more widespread across a healthcare system, including,

  • Improved operational efficiency (staff time)
    • Automating mundane tasks and reduce time spent looking for supplies, misplaced products or items
  • Informed decision making: (e.g., measure asset utilization – make purchases for what you need exactly)
  • Improving the patient care by tracking how long a physician has spent with the patient 
  • Nurses’ stations can use it to track patient requests and even food deliveries
  • Facilities can track air quality including dust, temperature and possible water leaks
  • Improve Safety
    • Nurses, physicians and other hospital staff can immediately call for help if they are under duress. 
    • Patients who have memory issues or become disoriented can be tagged and found quickly if they become displaced.

RTLS That is Both Accessible and Affordable for All

While the demand for access to RTLS technology is there, the challenge for most healthcare facilities is that the budget often is not. These smaller facilities and systems must choose which pain points to solve with the budget they do have.

So, while these facilities know the impact RTLS technology can have on operations, productivity, loss prevention and employee and consumer satisfaction, they simply feel they cannot afford to install the traditional systems that are more widely known.

The secret to widespread access and adoption is affordability. It is rethinking the current RTLS systems available to focus on what’s really important to healthcare facilities – software that works on their current framework.

For wide adoption of RTLS, the infrastructure must already exist, and tags should be off-the-shelf with mainstream accessibility. The system should provide both wayfinding and indoor positioning, or “location of things” for a more complete solution. 

Leveraging existing infrastructure and the right radio technology (not just WiFi or RFID but also Bluetooth low energy) allows for affordable and accurate RTLS adoption by any business, institution or facility considering indoor positioning/tracking and wayfinding solutions. It’s simply less complicated to install and manage for a service that is still highly accurate and more reliable. 

Major connectivity vendors like Cisco Meraki, Aruba and Ruckus, that provide services to these facilities, are catching on and using integrated positioning engines as part of their WiFi offering. 

Moreover, modernizing the RTLS system become easier and faster with software upgrades over total hardware and software overhauls. 

The Benefits of WiFi-based RTLS

The benefits of using a facility’s own infrastructure to deploy RTLS are fairly obvious, but some facility and IT managers believe, or have been led to believe, that this type of system doesn’t perform as well as the expensive combination of hardware and software. In reality, it is quite the opposite. 

Low accuracy (limited utility) and high investment have been the culprits of poor industry adoption. Specialized infrastructures are built to create higher accuracies but increase the cost, complicate deployment and make the tags larger, more power hungry and expensive (i.e., custom multi-radio tags at $70 or more last just three months before requiring a battery replacement). In contrast, tags off the shelf actually have a longer life span while WiFi infrastructure with the right software combination provide the optimal utility at cost tradeoff. 

A WiFi-based RTLS system can:

  1. Provide accuracy levels equal to or greater than what is required by most use cases
  2. Come at minimal or no additional cost as part of the connectivity solution infrastructure
  3. Rely on a technology that already has economies of scale such that tags are cost-effective, non-proprietary, interoperable and available from a wide range of suppliers
  4. Support tags to have a long batter life (e.g., 3+ years) to avoid the operational overhead of frequent battery recharge/replacement. 

With its many, many benefits, it’s no doubt that facilities across the U.S. are demanding affordable access to RTLS technology that is still very accurate but also “ready-made”. The total cost of ownership can be greater than an order magnitude when comparing a standalone RTLS system to a solution that leverages the existing infrastructure. This is the technology that will open the doors to wide-spread adoption of indoor positioning technology by all kinds of organizations across the country. 

About Mohammed Smadi

Mohammed Smadi is the managing director of PenguinIN, where he leads the business and technical development of opportunistic, managed indoor positioning solutions. Prior to PenguinIN, Mohammed founded Karmatix, a telematics-based loyalty program where he coined the term “road-as-a-service”. He was also a principal researcher at BlackBerry driving Quality of Experience over WiFi and co-founder of ErgoWiFi: technology provider for solar-powered WiFi mesh access points. Mohammed holds +25 granted/pending patents in addition to authoring several refereed papers and book chapters. He has a PhD, M.A.Sc and B.Eng. & Mgmt. from McMaster University’s ECE where he is currently an adjunct assistant professor. 

Healthcare Business Today is a leading online publication that covers the business of healthcare. Our stories are written from those who are entrenched in this field and helping to shape the future of this industry. Healthcare Business Today offers readers access to fresh developments in health, medicine, science, and technology as well as the latest in patient news, with an emphasis on how these developments affect our lives.

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