The Search is on…for a Better Way to Locate Hospital Staff, Patients and Visitors

Care team members shouldn’t have to spend hours each shift hunting down doctors, nurses, patients or family members as they move about healthcare facilities.

A porter reports a patient`s location using a push-to-talk app on his clinical smartphone
by Chris Sullivan
November 12, 2021

It’s no secret that doctors and nurses waste a lot of time searching for supplies and equipment within their clinics and hospitals. Multiple studies within the global healthcare community have confirmed that asset locationing is one of the top pain points impeding care team efficiency today, including Zebra’s latest “Smarter, More Connected Hospitals” report. But what many hospital executives and clinicians find equally frustrating is how difficult it can be to find a patient or locate staff when consultations are required. That’s why we’re seeing growing interest and investment in radio frequency identification (RFID) and Bluetooth® Low Energy technologies that, in a matter of seconds, can locate people who are currently in the building and confirm if someone has exited the facility.  

Clinicians don’t have time to call around to see whether a patient under their charge has been taken to radiology or transferred to a different ward due to an upgrade or downgrade in status. Nor do they have time to physically run from one department to the next to retrieve a doctor, respiratory therapist or family member when a patient needs immediate attention and the party isn’t picking up the phone. They need to know each person’s whereabouts at all times – and that’s only possible if there are real-time location solutions in place. 

To Improve Patient Flow, Look Beyond Mobility  

Often, when talking with hospital executives, clinicians, IT and procurement decision-makers about the technology investments needed to improve clinical workflows, we focus on how to improve the flow of information between doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other clinical and non-clinical staff. They have to orchestrate patient care on the fly, so we want to make it easier for them to move from one task to the next without compromising anyone’s safety or diminishing the quality of care. Yet, we must also start talking about how to improve “patient flow.” 

Having real-time visibility into the current location of hospital patients, staff and visitors helps to expedite care actions to improve outcomes. Often times, diagnostic testing and treatments are delayed because a patient is not where he or she is supposed to be, the physician can’t be located for a consultation, the parent can’t be located to give consent or the orderly can’t be reached for a pickup/transport. Understandably, there are going to be times when hospital staff can’t answer their phones or respond to text alerts, and family members may not always hear a page.  

Yet, that’s precisely why it is critical for hospital administrators to look at their location technology implementation plans (or lack thereof). Staff must be able to “find a patient” (or nurse or family member) with a mobile app that works as simply as a “find my phone” app but doesn’t violate a person’s privacy or security. And that requires the strategic implementation of RFID tags, Bluetooth Low Energy beacons and/or other real-time location systems.  

“Pinging” Can Do What a “Page” Can’t 

Being able to ping a staff member’s clinical smartphone or an RFID tag on a patient’s wristband, bed or wheelchair eliminates the numerous calls and texts that would usually be required to chase someone down. Visitors can even be issued temporary badges with RFID tags that work similarly to the wristband. That way someone will know which nurse’s station or waiting room to call when looking for a patient or visitor and which department can help with getting an urgent message to a doctor who may be currently attending to another patient.  

In addition, location solutions make it easier for nurses to confirm the status of patients who have been taken to radiology, the lab or even the bathroom. If the patient has not moved for a while, it could indicate they are awaiting transport back to a bed. The nurse can confirm with a quick peek at a mobile app and then immediately call for an orderly to retrieve the patient or opt to go pick up the patient to expedite the process.  

Giving a patient a wristband with an RFID tag upon arrival at the hospital can also help expedite triage, admission and discharge processes. It’s no secret that some patients must wait longer than they should to move from one step to the next simply because they get “lost” somewhere along the way.  

For example, an emergency department (ED) patient might not be brought back to the waiting room after triage; he or she might remain at the triage station to rest or for continuous monitoring of vitals. If the admission nurse goes to the waiting room to call on the patient and the person isn’t there, the nurse might think someone else on the care team already grabbed the patient – especially if workflows and intake notifications are digitalized and there’s no paper-based file to physically grab. The admission nurse will start searching for the patient or anyone who knows the patient’s whereabouts. That could take time, especially if the only person who truly has that insight is the triage nurse – who has since moved onto the next patient (somewhere out of sight). Many triage stations in modern hospitals are closed-door rooms, so there is no way of knowing who is in each room at any given time unless you physically open the door and walk in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a care team member peek in on my location to see if I was their “missing” patient.  

The One Thing to Remember: One Investment in a Location Solution Can Make Double the Impact on Operational Agility 

Most healthcare systems are rightfully focused on improving their asset locationing capabilities at the moment. As indicated by administrators and clinicians in our latest vision study, “The more time hospital staff spend looking for medical equipment or supplies, the less time they have to devote to delivering quality patient care.” 

And we know the unprecedented and sustained patient surge that hospitals have experienced lately due to the pandemic and other disruptive events has reinforced the need to increase operational speed, particularly when it comes to retrieving supplies and equipment. However, “people” location solutions can be just as influential on care team agility and patient outcomes. 

The faster you can get the right person to the right place, the better it is for the patient, especially those in crisis. Even if the “missing” person isn’t a critical care patient, you are potentially having to pull resources away from the care of such patients to track down others. (Surgeons shouldn’t have to walk up and down hallways, or floors for that matter, to locate a patient’s family to provide a post-op update.) 

In other words: investing in RFID and Bluetooth Low Energy technologies that can instantly confirm the location of the people inside* your facility via secure mobile or desktop apps will simultaneously help your hospital improve both clinical workflows and the overall patient flow. Clinicians will know exactly how and where to find the right people, supplies and equipment and subsequently route them to the right places at the right time. You’ll be able to audit the efficiency of current patient flows to identify communication breakdowns and insufficient information flow. And you’ll also be able to see just how effective current inventory management processes and room turnovers are in terms of tangible metrics. From there, you’ll be able to say “applying this technology in this way” or changing this process to get this type of information flowing to these staff members should improve asset availability, supplies utilization and patient flow. And that will set your team up to increase the number of positive outcomes and mitigate many of the issues that arise during patient surges.  

How to Locate Patients or Staff Quickly – Even If You Don’t Have Location Solutions Online Yet 

If you want to minimize the unnecessary movements of clinical staff when “searching” for supplies or equipment or move patients in, about and out of hospitals in the most efficient way, you really do need to invest in a location solution that utilizes RFID or Bluetooth Low Energy beacons. (But many of you probably know that, considering that 99% of hospital executives recently surveyed said they plan to use real-time location systems to improve patient flow in the next five years.) 

However, these types of technology implementations take time and resources, and you need a solution today. So, I wanted to point out some ways you could potentially use the mobility and printing solutions already in place in your facilities to improve patient and staff traceability: 

  • You could require that care team members scan a patient’s barcoded wristband and update the electronic health record (EHR) or other location record to report the intended destination prior to departing the current location. The wristband should then be scanned upon arrival to facilitate a near-real time location update of the patient’s location. Of course, if there are stops or detours made along the way, it could be possible to lose sight of a patient temporarily. However, this is where route standardization by a patient flow coordinator, 100% compliance with movement reporting scans and constant (real-time) care team communication becomes critical.   

  • Issuing doctors and nurses clinical smartphones for use while in your healthcare systems’ facilities can also aid with real-time staff locationing. The phones can be pinged using Wi-Fi, Near Field Communications (NFC) or GPS if needed using something similar to a “find my phone” app. Again, certain measures would need to be implemented to ensure the privacy of device users, but the mobile technology would work in essentially the same way as the mobile device location technology used by public safety agencies, utilities and others for worker dispatch and routing. 

As you start to identify those blind spots or bottlenecks in current patient flows and staff workflows, feel free to reach out to the Zebra Healthcare team to talk through some short-term and long-term solution options. The sooner we can give your team the visibility it needs to fully support patients and manage a higher case load, the better. 

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Editor’s Note:  

Download the new “Smarter, More Connected Hospitals” report now to learn about other hospitals’ specific plans for location technologies in the next one-to-five years.  

Then visit Zebra’s healthcare resource page to learn more about the RFID and other location technology solutions that may be able to help you improve your operational tempo, processes and resource utilization. 

You may also want to check out this story about how a laundry service is using modern RFID-based workflows to employ touchless processes in the hospitals it serves. 

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Chris Sullivan
Chris Sullivan is the Global Healthcare Practice Lead for Zebra Technologies and is responsible for the strategy and marketing functions for the Healthcare vertical business.
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