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How technology is changing healthcare, driven by COVID-19

Article-How technology is changing healthcare, driven by COVID-19

Care teams were mobilised and clinical workflows automated in record time to address some of the systemic issues exasperated by COVID-19.

Healthcare has been on a modernisation path for many years. At Zebra Technologies, we’ve worked with hospitals, clinics and ambulatory surgery centres globally for decades to help them digitalise workflows by providing tracking, tracing and collaboration solutions. While some facilities move faster than others, most have made significant progress in achieving their technology utilisation goals. Our company’s 2019 “Intelligent Enterprise Index” indicated 17 per cent of organisations self-identify as fully “intelligent enterprises,” and another 61 per cent claim they’re well on the path to becoming intelligent through the use of advanced technologies.

But despite the definitive steps taken to digitalise workflows, the impacts of COVID-19 have many healthcare practitioners questioning whether enough has been done to improve the quality, efficiency and safety of patient care.

Most healthcare systems have spent the last few months scrutinising policies, procedures, processes and systems to see if they facilitate or hinder real-time data capture, analysis and distribution. Many are starting to accelerate planned technology implementations or working to 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 to make an immediate impact

Care teams were mobilised and clinical workflows automated in record time to address some of the systemic issues exasperated by the pandemic. In several instances my company played a role in, mobile technologies were deployed in days to help increase the efficiency and accuracy of patient admissions 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:

Staff management

Any type of event that impacts a large per cent of the population could impact hospital capacity and strain resources: natural disasters, workplace accidents, seasonal flu and even a growing population.

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 requiring a larger physical presence in each facility. 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.

Patient management

Giving patients a barcoded wristband upon admission ensures positive identification 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 internet-of-things (IoT) devices that monitor vital signs, can be implemented to alert staff about urgent status changes and minimise direct contact with patients for routine 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 can be affixed to every specimen to increase accuracy with positive patient ID, tracking and the 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.

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 is used — whether a mask, blood vial, medical device or medicine — and input the quantity used, then inventory management system accuracy would automatically improve the utilisation of (and access to) consumables within a ward, hospital or entire health 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.

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 minimise unnecessary purchases.

At the same time, implementing RTLS, barcode or other 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.

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. For those transitioning to mobility solutions, be sure to update your policies and procedures to incorporate these technology tools and then conduct the proper training. Provide your staff with 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.

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