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The Evolution of Patient Tracking Systems

8 Oct 2014

Hospitals are collecting more data on patients than ever, as patient tracking technology spreads from major facilities to smaller, local ones.

Hospitals are using the technology to improve the efficiency of patient placement in the hospital. They sometimes use it to track equipment as well.

The tracking systems — usually software, but sometimes RFID badges — can reduce patients’ wait times and let doctors know the exact location of any patient immediately. Some hospitals are using portable wireless tablets to track patients, and others are using PCs with touch-screens. Some systems allow hospital workers to send text messages not only to the patient, but also to family and friends, as well as other staff. The applications can also do post-hospital tracking, helping patients keep up with their follow-up appointments.

Outpatient clinics are also using tracking software to monitor treatment time and room usage. So are long-term care facilities. Public health outreach nurses use it to keep up with hard-to-track patients. Even the patients themselves are increasingly tracking and recording their medical history, with some presenting printouts to doctors while others still keep hand-written notes.

Some hospitals use RFID badges to track both patients and staff with the aim of increasing interaction between them by reducing inefficiencies. RFID technology can also reduce medication errors.

Drug companies are another — somewhat controversial — consumer of patient tracking data. Drug companies monitor prescription refills and sometimes even gain access to detailed medical information or patient demographics, though doctors can opt out of their tracking systems.

You might think, with all this monitoring and accumulation of data, hospitals would be super-efficient. But 80 percent of respondents to a 2013 survey said patient flow at their facility remains congested.

Part of the problem may be that the technology is still evolving, but some of that congestion is likely due to human error. In fact, Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS) are often misnomers because the system still depends on hospital staff to input data. In his blog post, clinical workflow consultant Jim Stilley said busy staffers, caring for patients — their primary responsibility — can sometimes delay the task of data entry, skewing the results.

Technology is never without challenges, and patient tracking applications continue to improve. Some believe 2014 will be a watershed year, with better analytics to manage the influx of patient data as the healthcare system updates from IDC-9 to IDC-10 codes by October, 2014. The new coding system is supposed to provide more accurate and specific data on diagnoses and a more efficient billing system. Hospitals are also working to integrate patient tracking data with lab, pharmacy, and other areas to create a more seamless experience for both patients and staff.

For all its limitations, patient tracking technology helps coordinate care in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago – and it’s still in its infancy.

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