Demo
Contact Us
Menu
Demo
Contact Us

Healthcare RTLS:

An In-Depth Review of Technologies & Considerations

Real-time location systems (RTLS) help healthcare organizations save money—and lives.

From asset and personnel tracking to legal compliance and inventory management, RTLS allows hospitals and healthcare organizations to derive value in many different ways.

In this article we’ll discuss:

  • Five critical things to consider when choosing healthcare RTLS.
  • Benefits and considerations for the six main types of RTLS technology.
  • An in-depth look at AirFinder and why it may be a good solution for your hospital.
If you'd rather download the full white paper, get your free copy here:

Real-time location systems (RTLS) provide asset-tracking capabilities in multiple industries, from transportation, to manufacturing, to agriculture. But, perhaps the most advanced RTLS use cases lie in healthcare. RTLS has created the opportunity for hospitals and healthcare organizations to save both costs and, more importantly, lives. 

RTLS solves a number of healthcare-related issues:

Personnel tracking: "I need to ask Dr. Smith a question - but it isn't important enough to send him a message. I'll wait until I get a notification that he's on my floor to discuss it with him."

Asset tracking: "We need to know where the portable ultrasound is right away."

Legal compliance: "Can you prove that this piece of equipment was moved?"

Inventory management: "How can I automatically increment and decrements my inventory with minimal staff involvement?"

Financial queries: "I have a request to order 150 new wheelchairs - are we using the wheelchairs we already have, or are they getting stashed somewhere?"

But even with these critical benefits, nearly 93% of hospitals don't use and don't plan to implement RTLS (source). Thus, there's a great deal of value and many critical use cases left to be uncovered.

5 Things to Consider When Choosing Healthcare RTLS

1. Is the solution within your budget?

Tag costs: The tag is the physical device that records and transfers movement of an asset. A $50 tag may not seem unreasonable - but if you need to track 10,000 assets, you may run into some budgetary constraints. Additionally, some solutions force you to use a proprietary tag technology instead of allowing you the choice through open source technology. This definitely raises the cost. 

Power consumption costs: Be sure to consider how much power each tag or access point will draw as well as whether your system (or your customer's system) can handle it, as this affects how often tags will need to be replaced. Understanding the total cost of service is important when comparing options. 

Labor costs: If someone has to create an elaborate map in order to integrate your RTLS technology, you're going to accrue more labor costs.

Integration costs: If you're integrating an infrared RTLS solution, this will require a great deal of work. You will have to install a tag reader in the ceiling of every room in the network and hardwire those readers back to a central access point. Running cables and power through the ceiling of every room can be very disruptive and difficult to do.

2. How complex will the IT integration be?

Working with the IT department to implement a new solution can be a frustrating experience, as it can involve filling out a lengthy security questionnaire and waiting 3-6 months for approval. Hospital IT departments are regularly threatened by hackers and are rightly cautious of introducing possible vulnerabilities to their systems. Some RTLS solutions require no IT integration whatsoever - so be sure to keep this in mind when crafting or purchasing a solution.

3. How much of the facility will you need to outfit?

If you're only focused on tracking 10 items in five rooms, integrating an extensive infrared RTLS solution may be wasteful. Carefully consider what you want to track and how much of your hospital or healthcaresystem will be affected before choosing your solution.

4. Do you need to know an exact location or just proximity?

Does it matter whether you can triangulate the exact position of a tracked item, or do you just need to know a general location of the item, at the room level, within your hospital? Proximity-based systems are simpler, less power-hungry, and usually cost much less. For example, a materials management team sees immediate benefit from reducing the search zone for a machine or tool from the entire hospital to a couple rooms. Keep this in mind when you're looking at solutions. 

5. What do you want to track?

If you only need to track expensive capital assets, like an infusion pump or an X-ray machine, spending $80 on an RTLS tag isn't problematic. But if you need to make sure you know where Dr. Bob's special surgery stool is (so his interns aren't running around looking for it before the surgery can begin) - or if the item will only be in the hospital for a short time (or will perish within a short time frame) - a $2 tag fits the use case more appropriately. If you need to track expensive capital assets and less expensive items, the economics and technical capabilities of the system you choose should work for both.

AirfinderHealthcareQuote.png

RTLS Technology Options: Benefits & Considerations For Each

Infrared RTLS

Infrared works the same way as your television remote. An Infrared tag (i.e., a remote) placed on an asset flashes a unique infrared ID at a fixed interval, which is picked up by a ceiling-mounted infrared reader (i.e., a TV).

Benefits

  • It's nearly impossible to get a false reading using infrared RTLS (unless someone attacks your system).

Considerations

  • Cost is the primary downside of infrared RTLS. It's very expensive to install, because you have to put infrastructure in every room throughout the hospital. 
  • Because of the intensity of its infrastructure, it's not ideal for retrofits - and is better suited for new construction hospitals.
  • Infrared tags transmit light signals, so battery life is a concern. 
  • It's harder to track items as they move through the hospital, as this would require readers in the hallways as well as in rooms. For this reason, infrared RTLS is best suited for capital assets and is not ideal for personnel tracking. 

Technology To Consider

WiFi RTLS

WiFi RTLS technology uses tags that transmit a WiFi signal to multiple access points throughout the hospital. Using differential-time-of-arrival methods, the receivers are able to locate the tag. 

Benefits

  • If you deploy WiFi-based RTLS, you can often use existing WiFi structure with firmware changes. 

Considerations

  • WiFi-based RTLS tags are the most power-hungry, the largest in size, and the most expensive. For example, an AeroScout tag costs about $60, so using it to track disposable or ad hoc assets isn't financially realistic.
  • Installation can be difficult. For example, during deployment, you have to survey the hospital by walking around with devices to determine how to calibrate between the WiFi access points. And because WiFi-based RTLS rides on top of the IT structure, your IT team will have to be heavily involved with getting it up and running.
  • While RTLS solutions don't send much data and aren't connecting to WiFi as much as pinging it, there are still security concerns about having unmanaged WiFi end nodes on your network. 

Technology To Consider

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 9.42.09 AM.png

Ultra Wide-Band RTLS

Ultra wide-band RTLS is the gold standard in terms of location precision. It uses small, low-powered tags that transmit an ultra wide-band signal using a spark-gap-style transmitter. This instantaneous burst of energy creates a very wide signal and transmits across gigahertz of spectrum. 

Benefits

  • This is the most accurate of RTLS solutions. The RF chirps it sends out are barely detectable, but are able to be picked up by ultra wide-band receivers - which you place all over your hospital. And these chirps triangulate down to less than a meter. 

Considerations

  • To ensure accuracy, you have to purchase a tremendous number of readers - and those readers are very expensive. In fact, every tag has to have 3-5 readers to get an accurate location.
  • This is the type of technology Amazon uses in its warehouse to track where every box and robot is - down to the centimeter. But a hospital might not want or need such exact location positioning, which would make the expense unjustifiable.

Technology To Consider

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 9.47.00 AM.png

Passive RFID

Passive RFID is the type of technology you've seen in libraries and retail stores and uses simple, battery-free tags and high-power readers. The readers send out low-frequency radio signals that transmits so much energy over the air that the tag's collector antenna picks up its radio waves with brute force. The tag then transmits back using a different frequency, which the reader receives.

Benefits

  • A passive RFID sticker tag is extremely inexpensive - as low as 10 cents.
  • These inexpensive tags last forever, which is a clear benefit.

Considerations

  • While the tags are inexpensive, the readers are expensive. And unless you're using chokepoint RFID (which is what storefronts with large resonators use), you will need a lot of them for location tracking. In fact, you need to position these readers every 10-15 feet for them to work for RFID.
  • To work properly, passive RFID readers radiate a great deal of energy to pick up tag signals, which hospitals are typically wary of.

Technology To Consider

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 9.53.07 AM.png

Proprietary Wireless RTLS

Proprietary wireless RTLS solutions use "homegrown" wireless technologies on the tag, the reader, and the network side. For example, Awarepoint readers create a mesh network to transact data, and the tags send data that multiple readers receive.

Benefits

  • Proprietary wireless RTLS can be salable up to thousands of tags.
  • You'll have full integration between your tags, readers, and backend, which means you'll have only "one stop" for addressing customer problems or concerns.

Considerations

  • With proprietary wireless solutions, you're locked into buying the tags from the provider, and those tags may be very expensive. For example, Awarepoint tags are $40-$60 a piece.
  • Because of the nature of proprietary technology, these RTLS solutions don't offer interoperability with anything else out there.

Technology To Consider

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 10.00.45 AM.png

Active Bluetooth-Based RTLS

Active RTLS uses battery-powered sensors that connect to various access points throughout the hospital and transfer data to the cloud. These solutions use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology to reduce system and operational costs and enable asset tracking in emerging healthcare areas that previously hadn't been able to track assets.

Benefits

  • There's no IT integration (depending on the solution).
  • This is the least expensive RTLS option.
  • You don't have to cover the whole hospital. You can start in one area, or with one function, and create value before scaling. This "crawl, walk, run" approach with testing and deploying isn't available with most integrative RTLS solutions.

Considerations

  • Location accuracy of active RFID is only as granular as the number of readers you have, so many readers are necessary for a high level of accuracy. Potential users must consider that there is a major cost trade-off between the pinpoint accuracy of ultra wide-band and the room-level accuracy of active RTLS.

Technology To Consider

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 10.16.02 AM.png

Benefits of Using AirFinder For RTLS

AirFinder is a simple, effective RTLS that enables low-cost and secure asset tracking. Aside from the general benefits offered from Bluetooth-based active RTLS, AirFinder offers several critical benefits particular to healthcare:

The system can be deployed with no IT integration whatsoever.

Many RTLS solutions require complex IT integrations, which can slow down deployment or halt it altogether. However, AirFinder can be installed without touching the hospital network, which means a deployment can be piloted very quickly.

It is highly secure.

Depending on what solution you choose, there are security concerns. AirFinder connects to the cloud through a central Symphony Link access point and can be deployed without ever touching the hospital network. But not all Bluetooth-based active RFID technologies have this upside. For example, data from a Bluvision reader goes back to the network via WiFi, which results in hospitals having a sophisticated WiFi host on their network - a clear security concern.

You can use inexpensive, open source, flexible tags.

AirFinder uses open-source iBeacon tags that can be purchased from multiple suppliers. This means you aren't stuck with proprietary (and expensive) one-size-fits-all tags. iBeacons - which range from about $2 to $10 - are sold in hundreds of form factors, which makes application customization simple. In a hospital, this means you can track virtually anything without the bulk of a basic, standard-size tag.

It provides an extensive online dashboard.

The AirFinder dashboard allows you to:

  • Track assets by room or location in real time.
  • Group iBeacon tags together so you can visualize where the group of things you care about are. (This is commonly used in operating room settings, where many pieces of equipment need to be regrouped after each procedure to refresh the facility back to its known state.)
  • Create custom alerts so you can be made aware if a provider comes onto the floor or a machine is taken off the floor. These alters can be sent via email or text message.
  • View custom reports showing where assets are and have been, including their full location history.

AirFinder is a product division of Link Labs, Inc. Link Labs creates connectivity technology and solutions for enterprise and industrial customers seeking to derive business value from the Internet of Things (IoT).

Get The Free White Paper