Will Wi-Fi Energize the Asset Tracking Market?

By Cindy Atoji

June 24, 2008 | Can Wi-Fi push RFID into the mainstream health care? Yes, argues Gabi Daniely, AeroScout vice president of product strategy, because Wi-Fi networks can be used to deploy RFID on infrastructure that’s already in place. He’s admittedly biased—AeroScout, is a leader in Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) accounting for almost 90 percent of Wi-Fi RFID tags, a market estimated to grow to $110.6 million by 2011—but nevertheless has a point.

With active RFID moving beyond simple asset tracking applications, the industry is maturing. The technology is now capable of not just locating products and people, but also sending data and status information through a unified platform. Digital HealthCare & Productivity spoke with Daniely about the state of Wi-Fi RFID, technical issues faced during implementation, and the future of this technology.

DHP: Why is now the right time for RFID-based asset tracking in health care?

DANIELY: Two or three years ago when Wi-Fi RFID was introduced into the health care market, it offered a standard solution for hospital-wide asset tracking. [That meant] asset tracking solutions focused mainly on departmental solutions in a single ward or floor. But from a total cost of ownership standpoint, it didn’t make sense for IT managers to deploy hospitals with an overlay network. Instead, they want this to happen on the network that already exists, and since the Wi-Fi network is often already in place for data, and they’re trying to leverage it now for voice and also for location tracking, and any other applications. A very high percentage of hospitals are deploying Wi-Fi networks, which makes it a no-brainer.

DHP: Are there critical implementation issues?

DANIELY: You should leverage your Wi-Fi network, but you don’t want to take your network down. So it’s very important that you implement in a way that the impact of the Wi-Fi RFID tags will be minimal. There are various ways to work with Wi-Fi RFID. One is [to have] RFID tags associate to the network like a regular Wi-Fi client, [but] this consumes more resources from the network. Another way is where the tags are in beaconing mode; multiple Wi-Fi access points receive a beacon from the RFID tag and relay information. This is the mode that we’ve worked on, and that Cisco and other access point and wireless LAN vendors have standardized on. Cisco is leading the market in Wi-Fi network deployment, of course.

The beaconing mode doesn’t require the tag to associate, the message is very short, and it doesn’t require IP addresses. If I have ten thousand tags attached to equipment in a hospital, you won’t need ten thousand IP addresses, either dynamic or fixed, which would be an IT manager’s nightmare. If you are truly are going to have an enterprise installation, not a departmental one, then that is important. This ensures that you don’t take down your network and even with a thousand tags you’ll basically use less than a percent or half of a percent of the Wi-Fi network load.

The other point is the battery life. It’s important to get at least four-year battery life out of the tags, because you don’t want to create a maintenance nightmare. This also ties into the first point because working in the beaconing mode preserves more of the batteries’ life. Another important parameter is the vendor you’re working with should have experience with hospital-wide deployments and not just departmental solutions. Once you start deploying 1,000 or 2,000 tags, the flood gates just open, and other deployments want to tag it also and you just add more and more tags as you go. The nature of Wi-Fi is that it is pervasive and you can get hospital-wide visibility with it, so you need a vendor who knows how to install a system throughout a campus, and you want your system to be able to scale to thousands and tens of thousands of assets.

DHP: What key integration issues can crop up?

DANIELY: When you kick off the project, you should you identify what the applications and solutions are; who users are; and how they will be using them on a daily basis. Each application has its own type of interface, so it’s important that the asset tracking platform have an open and flexible API (Application Programming Interface) design. For instance, the asset tracking system can integrate data and push it an OR (Operating Room) management system, adding a layer of real-time location and status data so the OR management system can do some automated workflow scenarios.

DHP: What type of assets are health care providers tracking?

DANIELY: I’d say the hottest items are infusion pumps by far. Others include compression units, telemetry monitors, oximeters, feeding pumps, defibrillators, wheelchairs, and beds—mainly items which are mobile and very costly. In addition, of course, there are patients and staff.

DHP: Can you describe some benefits in terms of both ROI and patient care?

DANIELY: In terms of ROI, there are several. Foremost are theft and loss, which is a very hard ROI. Second [is] asset utilization. You can dramatically reduce your rentals and even eliminate rentals for a certain assets such as infusion pumps, [for example]. There are staff productivity improvements from not having to waste time searching for equipment or doing manual inventory counts. Patient throughput is another ROI parameter; so if you’re doing workflow automation applications in the OR or ER, you can look at this. Regulatory compliance, though it’s sort of a soft ROI, is a benefit. Another item is temperature monitoring. Today in most hospitals, there’s manual temperature monitoring done on refrigerators and freezers. A sensor network can automate that, operating on top of the location network.

DHP: Where do you see health care asset tracking heading in the future?

DANIELY: What we’re seeing is consolidation of technology. We’re getting many requests for the consolidation of active and passive RFID technologies in the hospital. We also see this going outdoors. We have a new agreement with Cisco to integrate our location engine software with their mobility services engine. This means we’ll be able to use Wi-Fi RFID inside and outside, and we’ve done some pilots, doing tracking of patients in an outdoor emergency situation. You can also use RFID for the warehouses of health care equipment providers.

DHP: What have you learned from implementing health care asset tracking solutions?

DANIELY: There’s been a lot of learning. The most important thing is to set the right business goals for the deployment. This means having a key performance indicator. So for example, “I spend X amount of money on rentals, I want to reduce it to this amount.” You need to define the project goals, set expectations, and make sure that all users will adhere to the change management that’s required to do the rollout.

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