At thousands of dollars a pump, such equipment surpluses are expensive. As a result, many hospitals are turning to RFID technology to keep track of pumps, as well as other expensive mobile equipment, including wheelchairs and patient monitors. According to a report by Spyglass Consulting, the number of hospitals using RFID tags to track assets will skyrocket from 10 percent in mid-2005 to 45 percent by the end of 2007. Such programs promise to cut not only costs, but also the time that clinicians and engineers spend searching for equipment, and the time patients spend waiting for it.
This month, Cisco Systems Inc. pledged to accelerate the process, launching its Clinical Connection Suite. Its latest network service prioritizes information from and tracks the locations of wireless devices, including VOIP (voice over IP) phones, laptops and certain RFID tags.
Within three years, RFID tags will be viewed as just another networked device, predicted Kent Grey, global lead for Healthcare Solutions at Cisco Systems. "Because the tags are just another device on the network, the ability to manage the tag comes with the ability to manage the network."
However, most hospitals currently using RFID tracking systems use proprietary RFID tags that communicate with RFID readers. This creates a separate RFID network that communicates with a hospital's network. According to a survey conducted in April by American RFID Solutions, GE Healthcare's Intellimotion and Agility Health Care Solutions are the most popular; each controls just over a quarter of the market and provides its own tags, servers, software and access points.
Cisco is promoting an alternative: bypassing the RFID readers with more general active RFID tags that hook directly into a hospital's network. Unlike passive RFID tags, active RFID tags require their own power source and can transmit signals for several feet.
In interviews with Ziff Davis Internet, hospital IT executives using proprietary systems did not seem inclined to switch, saying that the proprietary systems offered better resolution and additional features or more-convenient service plans.
But Gary Bayston, manager of biomed at Rockford Health System, waited to implement an RFID tracking system until he could leverage his hospital's extant wireless network. A couple years ago, he and his colleagues began looking into asset-tracking software from Four Rivers Software Systems Inc, but they backed off when learning that cable would need to be installed throughout the hospital, even though an 802.11 wireless network was already in place.
The hospital changed its mind when Four Rivers partnered with Pango Networks Inc., a company that makes RFID tags that communicate directly with extant wireless networks.
Rockford Memorial has just finished a three-month pilot program tracking 20 ventilators. But Bayston plans to ramp up the system quickly. He has a purchase order to update software and purchase an additional 600 tags, and the hospital has budgeted to add 1,000 tags a year.
Bayston first saw the need for an asset-tracking system four years ago. His department has to make sure 9,000 pieces of equipment receive preventive maintenance, but engineers had trouble finding the equipment.
He then interviewed all the other department managers to see what they needed. "The results I got back opened your eyes up wide," he said. "We were just a little portion of it." He took the results to his human resources department. Together they calculated that the system was losing $4,000 a day in wages due to time spent looking for equipment.
Not all of it was medical, said Bayston. When planning an asset-tracking program, he advised, "don't just limit to the nurses." His hospital is considering whether items like food service carts should be tagged too.
Bayston thinks Rockford Memorial will see a return on investment within 12 months, and that returns will grow as technology improves. He expects the cost of RFID tags (about $75 each) to drop by half in a year. Battery life is also expected to improve dramatically. In first-generation tags, batteries last only 60 to 90 days, said Bayston. In next-generation tags, batteries should last a year or more.
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