Hospitals Take the Pulse of Wi-Fi Tracking

By Ed Sutherland

April 12, 2005

In what it says is the largest Wi-Fi asset tracking tag deployment yet, Ekahau is helping a South Carolina medical group keep tabs on everything from patients to equipment.

With over a million square feet to cover and more than 1,000 802.11 access points linking a massive wireless network, Palmetto Health's Richland campus in Columbia, S.C., "is the largest Wi-Fi tag deployment yet," says Tuomo Rutanen, vice president of Business Development for location-awareness vendor Ekahau.

The Richland campus is a 649-bed teaching hospital that is part of the Palmetto Health group, which includes Palmetto Health Baptist in Columbia and Easley.

While RFID is grabbing headlines as the tracking solution de jour, Ekahau's Wi-Fi-based system—its Ekahau Positioning Engine 3.1 software, T-201 tags and RTLS (Real-Time Location System) application suite —enables every wheelchair, bed and infusion pump to be tracked by PDA, laptop or any other computer with a Web browser. Since the Ekahau system operates using the hospital's existing Wi-Fi network, the installation was a breeze. The installation will be complete in four to five weeks.

RFID "would be prohibitively expensive" to deploy in a large and complex environment, according to Rutanen.

Wi-Fi Provides Wider Coverage

"We looked at RFID systems and for the same price up front we would have only received 500 tags. But with Ekahau and using our Wi-Fi network we will receive 3,000 tags and it will cover both buildings," says Thomas Heideman, Manager of Clinical Engineering at Palmetto Health Richland. The Ekahau deployment covers the main hospital building and Cancer Center.

"RFID would have only covered one building," Heideman told Wi-Fi Planet. "More tags, more coverage for the same price," says the hospital manager.

Along with having what is arguably the largest deployment of Wi-Fi asset tracking tags— 3,000 of the two inch long 802.11b-based tags will blanket the hospital's campus—Palmetto Health "is the largest 802.11 health care deployment," says Rutanen. The hospital's Wi-Fi network includes 1,200 access points from Cisco . Although the medical staff uses the Wi-Fi network to view medical data on PDAs and laptops, until now "they have not had a tracking system in place," says the Ekahau executive.

"It was up to department directors to keep track of their equipment," says Heideman. "Departments found it difficult to know where their equipment was at all times."

"Using the Ekahau RTLS solution, the biomedical team, caregivers and other staff at Palmetto Health Richland will be able to locate all tagged assets, such as infusion pumps, patient beds, wheelchairs and other medical equipment" from PDAs, wheeled computers and computer workstations, according to an Ekahau statement.

Also, any other wireless devices, including laptops, PDAs and handheld barcode readers with built-in Wi-Fi can be tracked by the Ekahau location system. While the main hospital building and Cancer Center are part of the first phase of the installation, Palmetto Health Richland will eventually expand the tracking capabilities throughout the campus.

The Finnish-based Ekahau claims devices equipped with their Wi-Fi tags can be located within three and a half feet. The battery-powered tags can be put in a pocket, clipped to your belt or attached to an asset, according to Ekahau.

"The tracking application will consist of the Ekahau Finder and Tracker application suites," says Rutanen.

ROI in Months

Return on Investment (ROI) for the hospital will be rapid. "Palmetto Health Richland will begin generating a payback within months," according to a prepared statement from Ekahau. Along with installation creating no downtime for the hospital, the new tracking system will "optimize usage of the existing asset base," according to a statement.

Hospitals spend quite a bit of money renting equipment because they can't find what they already own, says Rutanen. "Hospitals may lose up to two percent of their assets," says the Ekahau exec. With some medical items costing as much as $100,000, the benefit of tagging hospital assets is tangible. Other clear forms of ROI for a hospital using Wi-Fi tags include reduced equipment rentals, being able to find the assets you own, and cutting theft and losses. Another plus for the Ekahau system is reducing the time hospital staff spend looking for misplaced equipment.

"Palmetto Health Richland will also be able to manage their excess capacity costs by reducing their annual recapitalization of missing, lost or stolen equipments," according to Ekanau.

Technology Experience

Palmetto is no stranger to Wi-Fi. After being named in 2003 as one of the 100 most-wired hospitals in the U.S., the hospital recently opened free Wi-Fi access to visitors. More than 225,000 people annually come through its doors, according to the hospital.

Nor is this Ekahau's first experience applying Wi-Fi-based tracking to the healthcare industry. In October of 2004, the company teamed up with Birmingham Heartlands Hospital in the U.K. to cure what one surgeon termed a national health system "starving" due to litigation created by errors from using a paper-based system to track patients.

Preventing administrative errors, such as losing medical equipment, is one of the reasons behind the U.S. healthcare industry investing $7 billion in wireless technology, according to the research firm FocalGroup.

Ekahau says it will begin licensing its system's source code, enabling customers to add customized tracking to their own specialized Wi-Fi gadgets. Two possible uses for the customized tracking clients would be for heart-rate monitors or voice over Wi-Fi handsets, according to Rutanen. The program is analogous to Cisco's Compatible Extensions (CCX), so it should work without tweaks on any Cisco infrastructure.

Ekahau's competition in location aware Wi-Fi networks includes Wherenet, AeroScout, PanGo Networks and Newbury Networks.



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