COVID-19 Just Reminded Us Why “Modern Medicine” Needs Modern Technology Tools

Healthcare practitioners need to be confident in the decisions they’re making, and patients need to trust that they’re receiving the best care possible. But that’s only possible if everyone is fully informed about what’s happened up until the point of care.

A clinician uses the CS60-HC to scan a specimen label at the patient`s bedside before collection
by Jeff Schmitz
January 19, 2021

Healthcare has been on a modernization path for many years.

In fact, we’ve worked with hospitals, clinics and ambulatory surgery centers globally for decades to help them fully digitalize and automate data capture and communications processes. While some facilities move faster than others, most have made significant progress achieving their technology utilization goals. Zebra’s 2019 Intelligent Enterprise Index indicated 24% of healthcare organizations self-identify as fully “intelligent enterprises” and another 56% claim they’re well on the path to becoming intelligent through the use of advanced technologies.

But despite the definitive steps taken to digitalize data and automate critical processes, COVID-19 has led many healthcare practitioners to question whether enough has been done to improve the quality, efficiency and safety of patient care.

Most healthcare systems have spent the last several months scrutinizing policies, procedures, processes and systems to see if they facilitate or hinder real-time data capture, analysis and distribution. Many have started to accelerate planned technology implementations or scale already-deployed solutions to support additional use cases. However, the speed at which change is needed continues to exceed the speed at which change is actually occurring.

Technology Can Be Deployed Right Now – and Make an Immediate Impact – Across Many Healthcare Functions (Not Just Those Impacted by COVID-19)

Care teams were mobilized and clinical workflows automated in record time to address some of the systemic issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak. In several instances, mobile technologies were deployed in days to help increase the efficiency and accuracy of patient intake and diagnostic actions, mitigate supplies shortages and inform treatment decisions.

From these experiences, we’ve learned ways in which the healthcare community can use technology to improve the management of its people, patients, assets and facilities:

  • Patient management: Giving patients a barcoded wristband upon admission ensures positive identification during the medication and treatment administration. It can also help with patient locationing. The wristband can be scanned using a handheld mobile computer to automatically retrieve and update records with patients’ current locations every time they’re moved. Alternatively, RFID tags could be affixed to the wristband for visibility by larger-scale RFID or real-time location systems (RTLS) to verify patients’ locations. Other types of remote monitoring technologies, such as Internet of Things (IoT) thermometers, can be implemented to alert staff about urgent status changes and minimize direct contact with patients for routine vital checks. Artificial intelligence (AI) tools can help with remote triage to better direct patient care actions before they step into a facility.
  • Lab management: Accountability starts at the point of specimen collection. Barcoded or RFID labels should be affixed to every container to help with positive patient ID, specimen tracking and the accurate input of testing results into patient records. Mobile printers synced with clinical mobile computers can make this easy after a quick scan of a patient’s wristband to retrieve and populate label data. A simple scan of the label at every subsequent touchpoint can confirm who handled what and when. Once the lab technician scans the barcode to retrieve a patient’s record and input testing results, notifications can be sent to the care team for further action. These capabilities are especially important when there’s a surge in specimen volume for the same types of tests and diagnostic panels all at once, like during a global pandemic.
  • Vaccine and pharmaceutical administration: We know that both practitioners and patients around the world are concerned about whether the cold chain will be maintained during massive COVID-19 vaccine distribution campaigns. But the truth is that all vaccines are temperature sensitives, as are several pharmaceutical products. Every single day, we (meaning anyone who is responsible for manufacturing, distributing, storing or administering these items) must take care to ensure that a temperature excursion hasn’t occurred at any point as the vaccine or drug makes its way to the patient. That’s why best practices in temperature monitoring recommend multiple layers of temperature monitoring technologies depending upon whether you are transporting healthcare assets on pallets or coolers or storing them in refrigerators, freezers or even temperature-controlled rooms.  Manual reporting methods can only capture the temperature of the item at a particular point in time. There is no way of knowing if a temperature excursion occurred between those readings and whether it may have compromised the efficacy of a vaccine or medication. But electronic data loggers can continuously monitor the environmental temperature and alert stakeholders to potential heat events so that they know not to administer the compromised doses. Even better, temperature sensing labels can be applied to individual vaccine and prescription medication units (i.e. vials, bottles, boxes) to indicate to those administering the medication whether the proper temperature has been maintained all the way to the moment of injection or consumption.
  • Equipment management: Beds, wheelchairs, IV poles, infusion pumps, ventilators and heart monitors are always in high demand. Affixing RTLS tags to each piece of equipment can make it easy to identify the location of available assets.
  • Inventory management: Inventory management has long been an issue that becomes easier to solve with the right labels, par location management processes and barcode scanning devices. If staff scan the packaging every time an item – whether a mask, blood vial, medical device or medicine – is used and input the quantity used, then inventory management system accuracy would automatically improve the utilization of (and access to) consumables within a ward, hospital or entire healthcare system. These same technologies can be used to comply with government reporting requirements such as the European Union’s Falsified Medicines Directive or report items nearing expiration.  
  • Supply chain management: Having staff scan items every time they’re used enables synced back-end inventory reconciliation systems to alert procurement teams when supplies are running low or even prompt an automatic re-order. This information can also help identify overstocks and minimize unnecessary purchases. At the same time, implementing RTLS, barcode or even blockchain-based track and trace tools throughout the supply chain will help confirm an order status in real time and alert care team members if and when they may need to be more judicious in their use of supplies due to supply chain shortages or production/delivery delays. They also increase accountability to mitigate fraud and theft.

What to Prioritize Now – and What to Think About for the (Near) Future

If your healthcare system is anything like Alfred Health in Australia, it is intent on providing high-quality services to the communities it serves, no matter the circumstances. With a comprehensive range of healthcare service offerings in Victoria, Australia, Alfred Health understands how important it is to improve communication, coordination and collaboration across its three hospital campuses, large network of community programs and 14 statewide services. It also appreciates the power of knowledge – and data. That’s why Alfred Health is aiming to accomplish three things right now, and you should too:

  1. Give nurses more time to focus on patient care. They’re asked to tend to a lot of patients – and complete even more paperwork – each day. If you can minimize the time spent on the latter, they’ll be more available to patients, whether assigned to triage, telehealth, clinical or outpatient duties.
  2. Avoid the duplication (or triplication) of patient information in your healthcare information systems – and the misreporting of information. Having a single, accurate record to reference is essential to ensuring continuity of patient care and preventing oversights during the transition of care from one facility or provider to the next. It also eliminates the time that care team members must spend trying to get the story straight and then completing burdensome “paperwork” to set the electronic health record (EHR) straight
  3. Ensure your patients’ care expectations – and wishes – are met without issue. Patients trust that doctors and nurses will closely supervise their care and make decisions that are in patients’ best interest. So, when mistakes happen, we want to know why. While it can be easy to chalk them up to human error, we shouldn’t dismiss the role that information – or misinformation – plays in care decisions. If a patient is unable to communicate his or her medical history, to include underlying conditions or allergies, then practitioners do the best they can to treat the acute issue. It’s not until an adverse reaction occurs that that they realize they were missing a key piece of information. Of course, if they had real-time access to patient records at their fingertips at all times, many incidents could be averted. Thus, the importance of mobile technology at the point of care.

If your healthcare system already uses clinical mobile computers, printers, barcode scanners, RFID technologies or RTLS solutions, you may simply need to scale your solutions to expand their applicability to additional workflows. If you still rely heavily on paper-based processes, I recommend you prioritize the implementation of mobility solutions first.

No matter how you hope to modernize your healthcare system, odds are that mobile technologies are going to be the foundational components.

Be sure to update your policies and procedures to incorporate these technology tools and then conduct the proper training. Staff will need clear direction on how to thoroughly disinfect all devices (shared or not), how to secure the devices to protect patient privacy and how to maximize all communication, collaboration and workflow applications.

Of course, if you’re looking for ways to increase compliance with either regulatory mandates or internal policies and garner public support for recommended healthcare practices, it’s going to be important to implement technologies in the “3T” category – track, trace and trust – sooner than later. In order to improve the quality of care you provide and build patient trust in the actions taken at the point of care, you will have to strengthen your supply chain, inventory management and asset location capabilities. Practitioners and patients need to know that they can get what they need, when they need it.  They must also be able to verify that the supplies and equipment used, the medical devices implanted, the test results reported and pharmaceutical components administered have not been compromised in any way.

That’s only possible if you and your partners within the healthcare ecosystem have visibility (via sensors, RFID and more) into the handling and storage of all assets at all times (via mobile computers). Our healthcare experts will talk about this more in the coming months, so stay tuned to the Your Edge blog for those discussions.

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Editor’s Note:

Want to learn more about why mobile technology solutions should be one of the foremost investments for risk-averse healthcare providers? Watch this short interview with Dr. Gordon Bingham, Chief Nursing Information Officer at Alfred Health in Australia.

You may also want to listen to this podcast with international healthcare technology expert Dr. Zafar Chaudry talking about how much doctors and nurses should really be relying on clinical smartphones to record or inform patient care.

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Jeff Schmitz
Jeff Schmitz is the Chief Human Resources and Marketing Officer at Zebra Technologies. He is responsible for driving preference and demand for Zebra’s brand as a partner of choice among customers, and as an employer of choice among existing and prospective talent. Jeff’s unique background in technology has helped him better optimize Zebra’s marketing strategy and sharpen the company’s corporate narrative, while his innate ability to build teams is advancing Zebra’s talent strategy to recruit and retain employees. Jeff has served in executive leadership positions for more than 25 years, including at Spirent Communications, Visual Networks and Tellabs. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering / computer science from Marquette University and a master’s degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology.