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Gone Gurney — New hospital asset tracker solves the mystery

December 08, 2014
Spend an hour or two in any hospital—for a joyful birth, a traumatic event or just your own routine maintenance—and you’ll doubtless catch sight of a nurse on the hunt for a “mobile asset” that’s gone walkabout. The search might be for an oxygen cylinder, IV pump, ventilator, crash cart, specialty bed or wheelchair… or one of the many other mobile assets that are so vital to patient care in any hospital.
It’s the very mobility of this equipment—which accounts for about $3.8 billion of Australia’s $140 billion annual healthcare expenditure—that makes it both essential and maddeningly ephemeral. Most of these devices tend to be used across several departments and, human nature being predictable, often aren’t returned to the place from whence they came. With each passing year, the cost to the healthcare system of maintaining this integral inventory goes up by 10 per cent.  “Most hospitals have over-purchased, but once they’ve deployed that equipment into the hospital, it kind of gets lost,” explains Dr David Dembo, General Manager of GE Healthcare Solutions. “It’s a combination of hoarding—some of the wards won’t trust that they can get equipment when they need it, so they’ll hide it in cupboards—and quite a lot of this gear just disappears. Hospitals have struggled forever with leakage of inventory.”

Keeping track of what Dembo calls “a moving ecosystem of equipment” in a frenetically busy hospital is nigh impossible when the same harried humans who fail to put them back are relied upon to manually complete sign-in-and-out logs. The financial and patient-care costs of the runaway mobile assets is examined in detail in a new white paper titled Reduce Your Cost Whilst Improving Patient Care & Satisfaction, which was conducted by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, in collaboration with GE Healthcare.

The white paper highlights that inefficient use of mobile assets costs Australian hospitals more than $60 million a year, but that figure doesn’t include the study’s analysis of the patient-care hours lost each day as nurses hunt down missing equipment.
With an estimated 65,000 nurses employed in public hospitals alone, and around 30 minutes on average lost each shift, per nurse, to searching for mobile assets, the daily loss is estimated at 32,500 hours in patient care, equivalent to around $957,000 per day in salaries.

And that’s just the nursing staff—Dembo says all hospital staff, even management, are affected by these search parties. “You have this maldistribution,” says Dembo. “Clinical staff, instead of providing patient care, wind up running around the hospital.”

“It’s always the nurses who end up running around, especially after hours,” says one senior nurse who has worked for more than two decades in one of Sydney’s major public hospitals. “You’re always hearing the call-outs over the intercom, ‘infusion pump needed!’. People are looking for this and that all the time.” She says she has “a million wheelchair stories”. The most heart-wrenching is of “a young girl, who was dying, and she was getting married in the hospital chapel … I spent an hour running all around the hospital trying to find her a nice wheelchair, one that would lie back a bit … I was thinking about her wedding photos. I did it myself because I knew I’d find the right one. Wheelchairs were always an issue because sick and dying people want to get outside to get some air, or see a child who’s not allowed on the haematology ward, or a pet, or their son’s new car—and you can’t find a decent wheelchair, because people definitely hoard those.”
The Frost & Sullivan research found that in a typical 500-bed public hospital, about $1.8 million worth of mobile assets are being used at only about 60 per cent of their capacity. Most of that inefficiency springs from the lost-property problem and the resulting hunting expeditions.

Now, imagine a hospital where staff can reliably discover the whereabouts of the equipment they need, when they need it. Enter AgileTrac, a Real-Time Location System (RTLS) from GE Healthcare. Once such a tracking solution is put in place, the study showed that up to 80 per cent utilisation of the mobile devices is possible, which could lead to an annual saving of $360,000, simply because you can find all of the equipment, so you need less of it. On top of that, hospitals can expect lower staffing costs, more timely and cost-effective maintenance of the equipment—and be able to deliver better patient care.

While most hospital administrators stated that missing mobile assets don’t affect patient care, 90 per cent of nursing staff surveyed begged to differ, saying that patients really do feel the impact. A quarter of the nursing staff reported delays in admissions, treatment start times or patients being discharged from hospital because mobile devices such as IV pumps and wheelchairs couldn’t be found when they were needed. Some reported not being able to move a patient from the emergency ward to the general ward because no telemetry system could be located; others reporting “constant calls” from the recovery ward because of a shortage of patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pumps. The equipment was somewhere in the hospital, just not where it should be.

GE Healthcare’s AgileTrac Asset Manager monitors not only the real-time location of equipment, but also its usage and availability, as well as helping hospitals to plan a better way to distribute their equipment. “Healthcare is a composite of many moving parts: the patient’s on the move, staff are on the move and the equipment’s on the move,” explains Dembo. “And yet there hasn’t been a way of tracking all of that movement.”

Once a piece of equipment is fitted with its RTLS tag, it can signal its whereabouts, and will never again be lost in the basement corridor of Block H. As well, its repair and service history are recorded, and an alert can be set up if it is taken beyond a designated area. AgileTrac can also be configured to track patients and staff.

Such information can also help hospitals to better manage their equipment procurement and inventory, catering for demands as predicted by data analysis, rather than in frustrated response to never-there-when-you-need-it equipment. “One of the biggest challenges hospitals are having at the moment is funding,” says Dembo. “There are two areas the savings come from: reducing the size of the fleet—they’re not spending money on equipment that isn’t being used—and they’re reducing that search burden of staff running around the hospital looking for equipment.” GE Healthcare reports hospitals can reduce their overall inventory by 10-20 per cent once this analysis and tracking infrastructure is in place. Dembo says he expects several Australian hospitals to be using AgileTrac and RTLS by 2015 and that, depending on the size of the hospital, returns on investment for those facilities will be seen between one and three years.

Compare the cost of installing such technology to keep tabs on hospital equipment with the investment that goes into training clinical staff who then end up doing those search-party tasks, instead of looking after patients. It easily computes to a win in terms of budgets, staff serenity and patient outcomes.

Want to know more about healthcare mobile asset management? Download the whitepaper.
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