Does Asset Tracking Live Up to the Hype?

Mar. 20, 2007 | Asset tracking has become a hot technology in the last couple of years. Tracking technology vendors claim that RFID-based systems provide close to instantaneous ROI, by reducing equipment rental costs. Furthermore, even though only a small minority of American hospitals have any kind of asset tracking thus far, the push is already on to extend tracking to medical staff and patients.

One of the main questions is whether WiFi-based tracking is accurate enough to be useful. One vendor, Pango has subtly changed its business model. Its Locator application can now accept signals from “tags” that use various wireless systems in addition to WiFi, such as infrared, 802.15.4, and ultra wideband. This is a tacit recognition that WiFi-based tracking may not be accurate enough for clinical situations.

Ken Lynch, Pango’s director of product marketing suggests that “WiFi tracking may not fit, say in the emergency department, where they might want to track at a much finer level of location granularity” as compared to knowing whether wheelchairs or pumps are on a particular floor. The issue here is that typically non-WiFi-based systems require the installation of separate networks, which cost substantially more.

Even if WiFi is good enough to track equipment and other assets, there are now a few voices out to deflate the hype. Vendors such as Cisco, AreoScout, and Ekahau claim their early clients are seeing good ROI from reductions in equipment loss and reduced rental fees. But in the October and November editions of ECRI’s (Emergency Care Research Institute) Health Devices Journal Jim Keller, ECRI’s VP of health technology evaluation and Chris Lavanchy, health devices engineering director, examined the adoption of asset tracking so far, and concluded that ROI has yet to be proven.

They suggest three basic applications for asset tracking. The first is to locate equipment for preventative maintenance and recalls. The second is to locate assets for clinical purposes. The third is to use asset tracking for inventory and workflow optimization. Essentially, Keller and Lavanchy believe that current WiFi solutions only work for the first application, and they say that’s not enough to cost-justify asset tracking. While these systems have promise, ECRI believes that most of the installations to date are pilots in which the true costs have been hidden.

Their study also suggests that ubiquitous WiFi across hospitals is only available in around 20% of cases, and that management of both the tags and the process of the location tracking is more complex has been suggested. They point to one vendor, Agility, which provides on-site staff for that inventory optimization — not quite a painless, scalable solution.

Keller suggests that for asset tracking “the hurdles are not insurmountable, but today is not the best day to buy if you have a choice. Other more affordable solutions are out there.” ECRI suggests that many hospitals are not doing a good enough job recording the rental equipment they have, which may be a place to look for easier bang for the buck. Perhaps that's why, as Cisco's Frank Grant says, asset tracking has taken off “a little slower than we thought in some spaces.”

Despite the caution, asset management technology seems headed in the right direction. The current third-generation tags are smaller, cheaper, and have longer battery life, and WiFi is becoming more ubiquitous as other technologies -- especially VOIP -- spread throughout hospitals.

Also, a few niche vendors, like Aethon with its new Homer robot, are working to plug the gaps in WiFi networks. In the end, the complexity of managing equipment and people in hospitals is a huge problem. Asset tracking, whether WiFi-based alone or supplemented with other technologies, is likely to be a major part of that solution. 

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