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RFID Technology in Patient-Tracking and Real-time clinical information


 When nurses at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., want to know if a patient has returned from having lab tests, they no longer need to walk to that person's room to check. They can simply look at a large, flat-panel screen hanging over the nurse's station, where an icon indicates the patient's location. The screen's color-coded graphics also tell them when lab results are ready and whether immediate attention is required. 

Such patient-tracking and real-time clinical information is possible because of a system combining RFID technology and data from the hospital's various health-information programs. Nearly two years old, the system has helped the hospital improve capacity management and enhance the quality of its care. 

"We are able to manage the volume of patients better," says Tim Stettheimer, the hospital's senior vice president and CIO. "There are [fewer] bottlenecks in the process. We have more and more patients. If we hadn't changed, we'd be turning more away." 

St. Vincent's is part of 
Ascension Health Corp., the country's largest nonprofit health-care system, with 67 acute-care hospitals in 20 states. Each year, St. Vincent's serves more than 17,000 inpatients and 125,000 outpatients. And the number of patients is growing—from March to December 2005, admissions jumped by 19 percent. But St. Vincent's, which has 338 beds, lacked up-to-the-minute information about the availability of the beds. As a result, patients had to be diverted to other hospitals. In 2004, St. Vincent's lost an estimated $20 million in net revenue because of such patient diversions. 

To address this problem, the hospital developed a strategy to improve patient visibility, eliminate backups in admissions and discharges, and reduce the time spent waiting for care. A first step in reaching those goals was getting better insight into where patients were at all times, as well as making available real-time information about the status of doctors' orders and test results. 

While the hospital was looking at how to make those improvements, it was also exploring ways to incorporate RFID into its infrastructure. "As RFID was coming over the horizon, it piqued people's interest," says Stettheimer, who also serves as a regional CIO for Ascension Health. "We felt there was value there." St. Vincent's has earned a reputation for embracing emerging technologies, including an expansive wireless LAN covering more than 1 million square feet, and a computerized physician order-entry system that aims to improve patient safety and boost the quality of care. After reading about the use of RFID by such early adopters as 
Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense, Stettheimer was convinced the technology held promise for the hospital. 

To that end, St. Vincent's hired 
Awarix, a Birmingham-based software company, to help design a plan to improve the flow of patients throughout the hospital. It also worked withIntel to develop the real-time patient visibility system. The system uses active RFID tags, interrogators (readers) and software from Radianse, and it runs on Intel-based servers. The hospital considered using Wi-Fi for patient-tracking, but ruled out that technology because the tags were too big and the battery life too short.