Healthcare has been on a modernisation path for many years. Hospitals, clinics, and ambulatory surgery centres all around the world have been striving to fully digitalise and automate data capture and communications processes for decades. While some facilities move faster than others, most have made significant progress toward achieving their technology utilisation goals. Yes, 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 scrutinising 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 occurring.
Technology can be deployed right now, making an immediate impact across many healthcare functions. Care teams have been mobilised and clinical workflows automated in record time to address some of the systemic issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak. Mobile technologies have been 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:
Any type of event that impacts a large percentage of the population could impact hospital capacity and strain resources. Giving care team members clinical mobile computers that allow for real-time communication and collaboration with geographically dispersed colleagues via text, voice or other data-sharing tools helps “expand” staffing without having to hire more staff or overwork existing employees. These devices also help increase clinician efficiency by providing access to patient records at the point of care so they can be updated in real-time without requiring a trip to a nurses’ station.
Giving patients a barcoded wristband upon admission ensures positive identification (PPID) during medication and treatment administration. It can also help with patient locating. 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, radio frequency identification (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 the 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.
Accountability starts at the point of specimen collection. Barcoded or RFID labels should be affixed to every container to help with PPID, 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 report 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.
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 sensitive, 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 on whether the assets will be transported on pallets or coolers and stored in refrigerators, freezers, or temperature-controlled rooms. Manual reporting methods can only capture the temperature of an 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.
Inventory management has long been an issue that becomes easier to solve with the right labels and location tracking technologies, such as RFID readers and barcode scanning devices. If staff scan the packaging every time an item such as a mask, blood vial, medical device or medicine is used and input the quantity used, then inventory management system accuracy would automatically improve. This, in turn, helps improve 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 to report items nearing expiration to ensure prioritization and prompt disposal if warranted.
Supply chain management
Having staff scan items every time they’re used also enables synced back-end inventory reconciliation systems to alert procurement teams when supplies are running low and trigger automatic replenishment. This information can also help identify overstocks and minimize unnecessary purchases. At the same time, implementing RTLS, barcodes 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 and delivery delays. They also increase accountability to mitigate fraud and theft.