Many hospitals and care homes are looking to invest in a Healthcare RTLS (Real-time location systems) to demystify their processes and procedures. These systems have existed for decades now, but have proliferated in the auto, aerospace, and logistics industries since 2017, in part due to the growth in IoT device availability. But what are these systems, and how are they benefiting healthcare providers?
What is RTLS?
RTLS (Real-time location systems) serve a number of purposes, but their aim is to provide better oversight of complex systems, allowing for optimizations and cost saving initiatives. They achieve this by tracking the locations of all vital assets within that system, often using the gathered data to build a “digital twin” of the system. This new operational oversight allows enterprises to locate lost items, identify system bottlenecks, and ensure resources are deployed effectively, as well as geo-fence sensitive areas, fulfil safety compliance roles, and automate communications and core mechanical tasks.
How does an RTLS System Work?
There are three main elements to most RTLS systems: Tags, sensors, and software.
Tags: These will usually come in a variety of sizes with varying functionalities. Depending on the type of RTLS system used, these tags will be able to operate over variable distances and in different operational conditions. They are attached to all vital assets to be tracked, including machinery, vehicles, expensive equipment, members of staff, electronic devices, wheelchairs etc.
Sensors: By strategically planting sensors around a site, the tags can be located, and their time and location can be tracked. The precision of the location will depend on the RTLS’s technology- they often utilize Bluetooth, UWB, or active RFID tags. This information is then sent by the sensors to either an onsite or cloud-based data depository.
Software: Software is a key component of both tags, sensors, and the data processing and visualization elements of an RTLS. Appropriately visualizing data, and allowing senior managers to dig into the data and drive insights is imperative for the success of an RTLS. The software will also allow for automated tasks to be programmed and administered.
What Can A Healthcare RTLS Do?
There are several core functionalities of RTLS in healthcare, both in hospitals and care homes, and the list of RTLS use cases is constantly growing. Many sites will deploy an RTLS to help find missing objects, such as wheelchairs and hospital beds, only to end up optimizing processes across their facility.
Some of the major use cases are:
Emergency Room Process Monitoring: Emergency Rooms can be extremely busy, and the processes that power them can be intricate and time sensitive. By keeping track of staff (often only for a limited period), and tracking how they interact with machinery, technology, and patients, one can better determine how to optimize these systems to benefit both patients and staff members. RTLS can even predict staff and resource shortages ahead of schedule, sending out warnings when needed.
Virtual Intelligent Routines: By collecting data on doctors’ and patients’ movements and interactions, repetitive routines can be streamlined, compliance issues can be monitored, and reports can be created automatically, offering insights to senior management.
Tracking Equipment: Hospitals often have problems with missing equipment. While theft can be an issue, missing equipment is usually down to items not being returned to stock rooms or places of origin. By tracking vital assets with mini-tags, hospitals can identify where things are going wrong and ensure doctors and nurses are not spending unnecessary time searching for equipment.
Social Distancing & Contact Tracing: COVID-19 had a heavy impact on hospitals and care homes, and contact tracing became an important part of keeping facilities operational. A modern RTLS can track interactions between individuals, sending out warnings when social distancing measures are broken, or when staff or patients need to self-isolate. This can make the difference between staff shortages and smooth operation.
Predictive Analytics: New capabilities are emerging from healthcare RTLSs due to the AI augmentation of data. Companies such as InTech Health are paving the way in Predictive Fall Analytics, which notifies carers and staff when an individual is at increased risk of falling and injuring themselves – a common and fatal problem. These capabilities will only continue to grow in the coming years, offering new benefits to healthcare providers with active RTLS technology.
Different Types of RTLS System
There are several different technologies that are popularly used in RTLS systems. Each RTLS company will use these technologies in different ways, resulting in disparities in both accuracy and data reliability. The systems will also vary greatly in their pricing and capabilities. Briefly, the most popular RTLS technologies are:
BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy): This technology makes use of the same Bluetooth technology that is used in phones and computers. It is a less expensive RTLS to set up, in part due to its ability to incorporate devices already used on-site. However, its functionality is more limited than other RTLS technologies due to its location readings being les specific. Bluetooth radio wave are also more prone to interference than other radio waves.
UWB (Ultra-wideband): This technology is becoming increasingly popular for RTLS systems and is even popping up in new phones and personal devices. UWB is a radio technology which offers extremely precise locational data. It has the added benefit of being far more reliable than many other radio signals, which is perfect for busy environments with existing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth activity. Some UWB RTLS providers are able to position assets in three dimensions, allowing for a more detailed and actionable dataset.
Wi-Fi: Many RTLSs operate using existing Wi-Fi systems. These can be cheap to set up but suffer from many of the same drawbacks as Bluetooth. However, Wi-Fi components can often be incorporated into other RTLS systems, so they are worth considering for some more simplistic tracking tasks.
Active RFID: Most people will be familiar with RFID tags – they are common in retail and warehousing, but require manual scanning with an RFID tag reading device. An “Active” RFID tag will emit a signal that can be picked up by sensors, allowing these systems to more accurately resemble a fully functional RTLS. These can be useful for many inventory tracking tasks, but will suffer in accuracy compared to other technologies.
From the above, you can see that RTLS has some interesting healthcare applications, and there is plenty of room for new use cases in the future. If you are managing a hospital or healthcare facility, an RTLS may be worth considering.
Editor’s Note: Steven Manifold is CMO at Ubisense. Twenty years of experience at both the bluest of blue chips and high growth SaaS companies has taught him that people value one thing; frictionless engagement with companies.