July 25, 2024

Advancing Digital Excellence

Pioneering Technological Innovation

Paperless, barcodes and RFID in healthcare

4 min read

One of the UK government’s 2023 Mandate to NHS England priorities instructs healthcare leaders to support the workforce through training, retention and modernising the way staff works with digitalisation.

Simply reducing the burden of administrative tasks can enable clinicians to give back more time to patients – what many signed up for – bolstering moral and supporting retention. Training can be done remotely and efficiently via mobile computing devices to keep skill levels current and high. Similar technology can also be harnessed to positively identify patients and link them safely to timely treatment plans, reducing errors and staff anxiety.

Another mandate objective is to “deliver recovery through the use of data and technology”. This is where the government clearly identifies how critical data digitisation — and the subsequent digitalisation of information flows – is for the long-term sustainability of the NHS. Artificial intelligence (AI), which is used in the latest screening techniques to detect illness sooner, and equipment that allows more people to be treated at home, were called out specifically.

It seems somewhat alien to realise that medical records remain paper-based in many areas, with targets that “90 per cent of NHS trusts and foundation trusts should have electronic health records by December 2023, and 95 per cent by March 2025”. The same mandate calls for 80 per cent of Care Quality Commission (CQC) registered adult social care providers to have digital social care records in place by March 2024.

Having all the records electronically would mean the consultant could access all the information required to advise the patient, from a separate building or maybe even offsite, hugely increasing efficiency and likely increasing the number of patients he could see, all driving down the never-ending waiting lists. Simple steps to cut NHS waiting lists and recover performance.

Eliminate the gray areas and guesswork in healthcare

The mandate also says that “by March 2024, all trusts should adopt barcode scanning of high-risk medical devices and submission to the national, mandatory Medical Device Outcome Registry”. High-risk items include powered implants or partial implants left in the human body such as implantable cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators.

As per the NHS Scan for Safety programme, scanning is cost-effective and improves patient safety through generating early warning systems for expired medical devices, fast and efficient retrieval, and recall, monitoring implanted devices on a patient’s electronic patient record (EPR), and freeing staff from manual data entry and improving accuracy. The registry will be used to improve patient safety and outcomes in procedures that use high-risk medical devices.

Fortunately, barcode scanning of patient wristbands is a common thing to see in hospitals. This identification could link patients to their EPR and provide a permanent paper trail for any treatment, procedures, or drugs, even as consultants and doctor’s change. Yet the paper-based medical records pose a weak link in the patient journey, one that could be solved by an element of more advanced digitalisation called radio frequency identification (RFID).

A maintenance engineer can wave an RFID reader around various pieces of medical equipment surrounding a patient’s bed to conduct a stock take. This level of asset tracking really can drive efficiency as you know where every asset is, so there is no need to spend time looking for things or unnecessarily purchasing replacement items. Or, if they are rented items like some barometric beds, it ensures they never fall out of contract, enabling you to evade extra costs. However, not all facilities are using RFID for asset tracking, and those that are may be missing out on opportunities to use it more extensively.

RFID: flexible or fixed as needed

The next step up from a handheld RFID reader to account for certain high-value equipment is to implement fixed RFID readers around the hospital. Then you will have a “last known location” of every item you tag, which could be everything from wheelchairs to blood bags, pill bottles, and even trays. There’s location-tracking software that can sync with the readers to aggregate all the location data being captured and provide a digital view of your entire hospital’s status, at least in terms of asset positioning. But it offers more than a static view. It can help keep things moving.

In a recent use case with surgical tray sterilisation, hospital staff found RFID to greatly improve asset availability and workflow efficiency. And as we both know, time and money saved via a streamlined system opens more appointments and drives down queues.

With digital reporting, location data, and tools to communicate from disparate locations, systems can be more efficient. A 10 per cent efficiency gain, for example, would mean more patients treated and waiting lists reduced. Patients might also feel more at ease while there, as would staff since asking questions and getting answers would be more of a stationary task than something that looks like marathon training. A happy, healthier solution for all. 

Lorna Hopkin is a Healthcare Solutions Specialist — EMEA at Zebra Technologies.

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