There are various IoT technologies that generate value in healthcare, including location and sensing services. As new technologies emerge, smart devices with built in IoT capabilities are creating additional value – providing big data for strategic decision making for the optimisation of day-to-day operations. Real-time location systems (RTLS) enable healthcare applications such as security and protection, environmental and temperature monitoring, hospital asset tracking, patient/staff locating, and business process automation, among others.
How RTLS Works ?
This generally works by attaching a tag to an asset or people. While these move, the tag sends transmissions to fixed receivers in the space. Together, receivers and transmitted data illuminate the physical location of the tag and corresponding item at that moment.
The digital and real-time version of the location and all associated assets lives in an RTLS software. It’s the software (platform) that makes the location data meaningful, translating it into interactive maps, locating tools, heat maps, dashboards, reports, and other features.
RTLS Applications in Healthcare
There are many ways that RTLS can be used in a hospital. Several of the most typical use cases include:
Patient safety: Preventing patients, especially those who are medicated or confused, from getting lost or entering restricted areas. In maternity wards, babies can be fitted with tracking bands to support correct matching of mothers and infants and send quick response to abduction attempts.
Asset management: Allows healthcare facilities to easily determine the exact location of tagged assets. RTLS reduces the time and cost to search for equipment and decreases the potential theft of expensive equipment or misplacement.
Nurse Call Automation: Provides enhanced communication capabilities for staff and faster response times for patients.
Infection Control: Track interactions between patients, staff and equipment to contain infectious outbreaks
Wander Management: Empower patients and residents with a feeling of control and freedom while ensuring their safety and security.
Clinical Workflow Management: Enables improvements in efficiency, quality, capacity and revenues by keeping track of hospital staff (doctors, nurses, housekeeping and security) and making sure resources are properly used.
Staff Duress: Deploy immediate responses by instantly locating the staff member under duress
Way finding : Provide patients and visitors with clear and simple turn by-turn directions to a users’ Bluetooth-enabled device inside the campus.
Environmental Monitoring: In addition to meeting compliance, environmental monitoring is also critical for patient safety and to prevent product loss. It is mandatory to provide proper documentation of environmental parameters of refrigerators and other critical equipment at hospitals and auxiliary locations.
Technologies Used in Healthcare RTLS
There are many technologies capable of indoor positioning of assets and people. Different technologies function in different ways, and so offer different pros and cons. Let’s run through the main wireless RTLS standards available today, and review the advantages and disadvantages of each.
An infrared tag placed on an asset flashes a unique infrared ID at a fixed interval, which is picked up by a ceiling-mounted infrared reader and send the data to the cloud server with the help of wireless gateway.
Benefits: It’s nearly impossible to get a false reading using infrared RTLS
- It’s very expensive to install, because you have to put infrastructure in every room throughout the hospital.
- Because of the intensity of its infrastructure, it’s not ideal for retrofits—and is better suited for new construction hospitals.
- Infrared tags transmit light signals, so battery life is a concern.
- It’s harder to track items as they move through the hospital, as this would require readers in the hallways as well as in rooms. For this reason, infrared RTLS is best suited for capital assets and is not ideal for personnel tracking.
This technology uses tags that transmit a WiFi signal to multiple access points throughout the hospital. Using differential-time-of-arrival methods, the receivers are able to locate the tag.
If you deploy WiFi-based RTLS, you can often use existing WiFi structure with firmware changes.
- WiFi-based RTLS tags are the most power-hungry, the largest in size, and the most expensive.
- Installation can be difficult. For example, during deployment, you have to survey the hospital by walking around with devices to determine how to calibrate between the WiFi access points.
- While RTLS solutions don’t send much data and aren’t connecting to WiFi as much as pinging it, there are still security concerns about having unmanaged WiFi end nodes on your network.
Bluetooth Low Energy based RTLS
These solutions use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology with battery-powered sensors that connect to various access points throughout the hospital to transfer data to the cloud. It reduces system and operational costs and enable asset tracking in emerging healthcare areas that previously hadn’t been able to track assets.
- There’s no IT integration (depending on the solution).
- This is the least expensive RTLS option.
- You don’t have to cover the whole hospital. You can start in one area, or with one function, and create value before scaling. This “crawl, walk, run” approach with testing and deploying isn’t available with most integrative RTLS solutions.
Location accuracy of Bluetooth Tag is only as granular as the number of readers you have, so many readers are necessary for a high level of accuracy. Potential users must consider that there is a major cost trade-off between the pinpoint accuracy of ultra wide-band and the room level accuracy of BLE RTLS.
Ultra Wide-Band RTLS
Ultra wide-band RTLS is ultimate solution in terms of location precision. It uses small, low-powered tags that transmit an ultra wide-band signal using a spark-gap-style transmitter. This instantaneous burst of energy creates a very wide signal and transmits across gigahertz of spectrum.
This is the most accurate of RTLS solutions. The RF chirps it sends out are barely detectable,but are able to be picked up by ultra wide-band receivers—which you place all over your hospital. And these chirps triangulate down to less than a meter.
- To ensure accuracy, you have to purchase a tremendous number of readers—and those readers are very expensive. In fact, every tag has to have 3-5 readers to get an accurate location.
- This is the type of technology Amazon uses in its warehouse to track where every box and robot is—down to the centimetre. But a hospital might not want or need such exact location positioning, which would make the expense unjustifiable.
This is another wireless standard operating in an unlicensed segment of the broadcast spectrum. Its range is slightly greater than Bluetooth, but this comes at the cost of some reliability.
- ZigBee is an older, relatively simple wireless technology that’s easy to implement in any environment.
- Tags and receivers are durable and inexpensive.
However, the signals can easily degrade in ‘complicated’ environments, and they’re prone to interference. This makes them suitable only for small, simple bursts of information, or for very approximate location services.
Healthcare is beginning to view Enterprise Location Services as a valuable utility, enabling new workflow efficiencies and improvements to patient care. One of the most exciting aspects of Healthcare RTLS is that it’s keeps evolving. Keeping an open mind about these changes and looking for innovative ways to improve the patient experience adds incredible value to modern medicine.