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The right time, the right place

A recent survey has found that NHS staff waste huge amounts of time and therefore resources trying to locate equipment. National Health Executive spoke to Neil Lawrence to find out how RFID can help staff to save time and make savings

Because trusts now have no choice but find efficiencies, it has become crucial that they explore every way of cutting out waste from their procedures and processes, before cutting back their services.

One way which trusts have identified to allow them toe reduce their waste is to cut back on time consuming activities, including looking for equipment, which recent studies have shown takes up a huge amount of staff time in the NHS.

Thankfully there is now technology in place which allows staff to know exactly where a particular piece of equipment is located, which not only helps to create efficiencies within the system, but also improves patient care because the right equipment is then in the right place at the right time.

Radio frequency identification technology allows items to be tagged through tiny radio chips and then detected by a remote reader. Items tagged in this way are correctly identified and tracked, thereby contributing to improved patient safety.

“RFID is growing in application and appeal and forms part of the NHS Connecting for Health Automatic Identity and Data Capture programme (AIDC), along with other technologies such as bar coding,” says Neil Lawrence, project manager for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies, NHS Connecting for Health.

“The aim is to reduce patient safety incidents in the NHS while at the same time reducing costs in the supply chain. We are also increasing the track and traceability of medical devices, pharmaceuticals and medical assets throughout the NHS.

“As with bar coding, RFID, when used with the GS1 standards, will enable quick and easy identification of an individual patient, medical device, medicine, or equipment.”

There are various types of RFID technology in operation throughout many different areas of industry and government. So what types does the NHS use?

“As with bar coding we have seen some innovative uses of the technology in the NHS so far from the blood tracking work at Mayday Trust in south London to the medical document tracking work that is taking place in a couple of trusts in the north west of England.

“Rather than just using solutions from other sectors and applying them to healthcare, we are actually coming up with new uses for the technology. We have many concept ideas we are looking to develop such as real time tracking of medical assets to provide ward managers with the ability to find equipment instantly and reduce the amount of time healthcare staff spend searching for items. RFID will help to make the healthcare experience more patient centric.

Not only can RFID technology help staff to know exactly where a certain piece of equipment, medication or even patient is at any one time, it can also help to speed up the asset management procedure, when equipment is being processed after cleaning.

“Imagine the return of medical documents into the central library within a hospital. They typically come back in boxes of 20-25. Each of these has to be removed from the box, processed individually and then returned to the box. The box is then taken into the library where it is put away by staff onto shelves using a date and time system. This takes a good deal of time, many staff and a lot of manual work.

“Now imagine if the returned box passed through an RFID reader which instantly read all the tags on the items in the box. This means the box doesn’t even need opening to know what’s inside. Then if the shelves in the library had RFID readers in them it wouldn’t matter where you put the documents as they could be instantly found find by using the RFID tags within the records. Imagine the cost and effort savings of this?

“There are many laborious processes within the NHS that could be helped by using RFID to remove individual processing.”

Although RFID technology has been around in one form or another ever since the 1970s, it has only just recently become more commonly used in the NHS.

Given that this use is only going to grow in the future, how does Neil see the technology progressing as it becomes more widely used by the NHS?

“Over time this technology will be developed to be more healthcare specific. There are many solutions out there in other sectors that could be further developed to bring great benefit into the NHS. The tagging of all items in delivery vehicles for instance would bring great value to the NHS Supply Chain, to be able to track a patient through an emergency event would help us understand and streamline the potential bottlenecks in A&E. Another example where RFID would bring benefit is the tracking of beds and returnable assets throughout a hospital.

“There are huge opportunities in the NHS right now for new and innovative ideas to come to fruition.”

Although RFID technology has the potential to help NHS staff to significantly reduce waste from their processes, it is not a silver bullet for all NHS asset management problems.

“As with all technologies, the solution has to be relevant to the issue. In some instances, RFID would not be the right solution due to the size of item being tracked or the conditions surrounding the item. In those cases, we would work with trusts to find an alternative solution, such as bar coding.”

Given the savings which can be made through the use of RFID technology, it seems to make sense for trusts to invest in any technology which can help them to generate savings later down the line and improve the patient experience and their safety.

“Although this technology may be a major investment for some,” says Neil, “it represents a long term saving as well as a means of making the NHS cleaner, safer and more effective.”

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