Supply chains are difficult; pharma supply chains are even more difficult. But the recent pandemic era has taught us that the most essential thing is better medical asset tracking — transporting the right medical equipment, at the right time, to the right place and people. Nothing is more critical than an oxygen cylinder when a patient struggles to breathe or a perfectly functioning patient monitor when a patient has had a heart attack.
The urgency of the requirement itself makes medical asset tracking one of the most essential and challenging tasks to handle in healthcare supply chains. Let us look at how medical asset tracking works and what kind of a system would best work, even in a whirlwind situation.
When dealing with patient safety, time is of utmost importance, even more so when dealing with essential resources like medicines, vaccines, and medical assets like ventilators and oxygen cylinders. When a patient’s health needs urgent attention, every second matters, and that’s where medical asset tracking comes into the picture. It would help if you made sure that the right equipment reaches its destination on time to ensure patient health, and in some cases, survival.
Imagine how much more essential these things become in a scenario where there is an emergency everywhere, a shortage of equipment, and a never-ending count of patients. Moreover, in a situation similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are even ‘pop-up’ hospitals to manage. Let’s look at why it is important to manage medical asset tracking, why it is so challenging, and the solution you need to invest in for a safer future.
Why Is Medical Asset Tracking Important?
A well-managed medical asset tracking system is vital to ensure hospitals get equipment on time from outside and make sure they’re well-organized and available in the hospital premises. There are cases when mobile assets like patient monitors and ventilators are unavailable when needed the most. It’s like losing a TV remote, or car keys, except those aren’t life-threatening situations. Additionally, losing such equipment comes with considerable costs to replace them, sometimes urgently, at a higher price. When operational costs are already soaring, all this could affect the ROI and, more importantly, patient health.
When dealing with patient health, losing visibility on the equipment would be the last thing a hospital wants. Not knowing the correct location and availability information on the equipment would make asset utilization even harder. A list of medical equipment that every hospital always needs to have ready would comprise ventilators, oxygen cylinders, concentrators, defibrillators, stretchers, patient monitors, surgical lights, beds and a lot more.
What Makes Handling Medical Assets Challenging?
Every year, hospitals at a global level lose hospital equipment like wheelchairs & sterilizers and face the unavailability of expensive life-saving equipment like oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and ventilators when needed most. Hospital logistics managers face more challenges than just handling medicine and vaccine distribution, one of the biggest being hospital equipment management, especially during times like the current pandemic.
Medical asset mismanagement has been observed as one of the common causes for lower output efficiency in most healthcare operations. Tracking assets is not only hard when they’re being transported to the hospital in a shipment but also within the hospital premises.
Let us look at what exactly makes it essential to have a well-managed medical asset tracking solution:
1. Human Error in Traditional Asset Tracking Methods — Tracking medical devices and equipment through manual processes like maintaining spreadsheets or keeping manual registers makes the system error-prone, inaccessible, and unnecessarily time-consuming.
2. Inventory Mismanagement — Most hospitals overstock inventory due to potential loss and prior experience of missing equipment. Wrong inventory estimation due to an improper tracking system could lead to more inventory management problems, thereby adding costs.
3. Replacement Costs — Replacing the lost or stolen equipment adds a lot to the overall costs since there are heavy spends on new equipment to replace the lost ones.
4. Cost of Lost Person-Hours — The time spent searching for lost equipment ultimately adds to monetary loss — loss of person-hours and wages due to hours spent searching lost assets.
5. Impact on Patient Experience — Missing equipment directly means delays in treatment, reduced patient safety, more wait time, and an overall bad patient experience. Imagine a delay in an operation because the patient couldn’t be treated in time due to missing equipment!
6. Patient Life-Endangerment — In situations where missing equipment could mean delayed treatment or, worse yet, loss of life, hospital assets become irreplaceable. For instance, nothing can replace the functionality of a ventilator for a patient struggling to breathe. This is especially true in situations like a serious COVID-19 patient with weakened lungs.
What are the Solutions Available to Track Medical Assets?
Today we have location tracking systems using which hospitals can track not only their medicines and medical assets but also staff, patients, and visitors! Below are some of the most common medical asset tracking solutions:
Barcodes for Medical Asset Tracking
The simplest method to track medical equipment is via barcode. It's great for smaller medical items such as drug bottles and blood bag inventory, but not for bigger medical equipment like patient monitors.
The primary trouble with barcodes is the manual effort that goes into placing the barcodes and scanning them. Using barcodes for asset tracking also often gives incorrect data due to manual scanning and resultant errors. One of the underrated problems with barcodes is the apparent wear and tear that it goes through with each use.
A more enormous gap arises when these barcodes cannot be used for big hospital equipment such as defibrillators, ventilators, or patient monitors. It is impossible to track such big medical equipment using barcodes, let alone scanning them.
RFID for Medical Asset Tracking
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags can be used on more oversized items such as beds, wheelchairs, and heart monitors. Technologies like active RFID tags would also help keep track of vital medical assets. Data received from these RFID tags enable quick identification and round-up of equipment, ensuring that there’s no delay in tests, procedures, and exams.
But RFID tags also left gaps that created a need for better medical asset tracking solutions.
The biggest drawback of medical asset tracking with RFID is the need for heavy infrastructure. Investing in such a system isn’t worth it since RFID tags don’t even provide end-to-end visibility and are also costly. The second problem is the inability to provide visibility in transit. The RFID system is successful only for indoor facilities.
Thus, even while it looked like a promising solution, RFID tags weren't enough as a comprehensive medical asset tracking software.
GPS for Medical Asset Tracking
In the recent past, hospitals have been using Global Positioning System (GPS) as patient and medical asset tracking software. GPS trackers enable the hospital management to keep a check on the equipment by knowing their real-time whereabouts. It also allows easier asset/equipment recovery in case of misplacement or theft.
What was lacking in this system was that it was only suitable for extra-organizational spaces and wasn’t able to achieve any significant success in the intra-organizational space. GPS tracking was no good when the requirement was to track equipment within the facility. Moreover, it only provided asset location, which may or may not be integrated with an existing system, making data less actionable.
An end-to-end medical asset tracking solution can help fill these gaps. Let’s see how.
The Comprehensive IoT Sensor-Based Solution
The smartest way to overcome all the challenges and fill the gaps that other solutions leave is to use a comprehensive real-time IoT (Internet of Things) sensor-based medical asset tracking solution. The idea is to not only have this system but also to make sure that it is implemented well. The smart devices stay with the asset from the first mile itself, tracking it until it reaches the hospital. These devices capture real-time location and condition if needed, and the data transmitted through them can be constantly checked on a dashboard. The devices practically travel with the medical asset tracking it in real-time, while the system provides live data and insights using sensor-based intelligence, making data more actionable.
Such a solution provides:
- Accurate Location Data — An IoT sensor-based solution can capture real-time medical asset location and condition data in the storage facilities and in transit.
- Dependable ETAs — Just knowing the asset’s location isn’t enough. A good medical asset tracking solution would also send prompt alerts on delays and accurate ETAs. This ensures that there are no instances of delay in giving patients prompt medical attention. ETAs are especially important when there is an emergency requirement for the equipment.
- End-to-End Visibility — Such a solution should be able to provide complete visibility on the equipment indoors and in transit, reducing the chance of missing equipment.
- Better Asset Utilization — Real-time, end-to-end sensor data would enable better asset planning and management. This will reduce the need for overstocking and chances of unavailability in times of urgent requirement.
- Condition Data, If Required — When condition-sensitive goods — blood bags, lab samples, and vaccine vials — are involved, condition monitoring helps keep them safe for patient use. The devices constantly capture data on temperature, humidity, tilt, shock, etc. This data would also help maintain storage condition records for future reference and data analysis for better decision-making.
- Reliability — With long-lasting batteries and strong connectivity, such a system would give you constant updates on location data. Moreover, this data is independent of the carrier, making it more reliable and verifiable.
- Actionable Insights & Foresights — The solution would be able to integrate with the existing ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system and provide actionable insights through end-to-end visibility. The system would combine live data and pre-emptive actionability to help reduce preventable losses due to missing equipment.
When implemented well, such a solution would help reduce wait time, especially when dealing with life-saving emergency medical interventions. With improved patient care, optimized equipment usage, and increased productivity, hospitals will see improved patient health and safety.
With correct location data and better asset management, you’ll not only achieve improved medical asset tracking but also ultimately be able to address patient health more efficiently. Well-maintained supply-demand records would help improve the inventory ordering process. With fewer cases of missing equipment or theft of assets, hospitals would be able to get higher ROIs (Return on Investment).
But ROI isn’t the biggest concern of a hospital’s management; what’s more critical is patient health & safety. Having reliable full visibility on medical assets is necessary for better & prompt healthcare, better use of hospital staff's time, and better asset management. But most importantly, the system would help shorten patient wait-time and ensure overall better patient health, meeting the ultimate goal.