When patients check in at Family HealthCare, they're handed a small electronic tag to wear around their neck.
Staff members also wear the tracking tags. Everyone shows up as icons on a computerized map of the building.
The map is part of the software created by Intelligent InSites, a Fargo, N.D. company. Other companies provide the devices to track equipment and inventory and monitor temperatures.
A $500 million project to make veterans hospitals more efficient means growth for Intelligent InSites, which will install its software in 152 VA medical centers nationwide.
At Family HealthCare, Intelligent InSites software follows equipment or patient movements, automates tasks such as ordering supplies, and stores data.
"We can actually visually see on the map here that my location right now is back here in registration," said Cathy Wasson, a senior system application analyst at Family HealthCare during a recent tour. "There I am on the map."
Wasson is in charge of managing the real time tracking system at the clinic. She said the system also shows equipment like wheelchairs on the map, and shows if a patient is using the wheelchair. It also monitors how staff members interact with patients.
"So when that patient is in the exam room, every time the nurse goes in or the provider goes in it's also picking up that nurse or provider staff tag and catching that in real time, as well saying that patient is now in the room with a nurse or provider," Wasson said.
Family HealthCare serves about 12,000 mostly low-income or uninsured patients from eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.
Chief Operating Officer Pat Gulbranson said the clinic is just starting to collect detailed data from the tracking tags. He said that information will be analyzed to look for ways to make the clinic more efficient and reduce the time patients spend waiting.
"I believe we're one of probably just a handful, kind of on that leading edge of looking at patient flows and tracking patients throughout the clinical experience," he said. "So we're looking to learn along the way here."
Clinic staffers are watching for any privacy concerns involved with tracking patients or staff. But so far, Gulbranson said, there have been no objections.
Gulbranson won't say how much the monitoring system costs, but he expects cost savings to quickly pay for the tracking devices and software.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will implement the tracking system at its facilities in phases over the next five years, using Hewlett Packard as its primary contractor. But initially, the system will not be used to track patients or staff as the VA is still negotiating privacy issues with employee unions.
“It's going to be hard to keep up with everyone's ideas of how they can use this technology to improve their work.”Kimberly Brayley, Veterans Affairs project director
The initial focus at VA facilities will be on saving money by tracking equipment and supplies.
Carol Tweten, vice president of government programs, for Intelligent InSites, said more than 50 hospitals and clinics across the nation already use the software. Tweten said the first potential savings hospitals find is underused equipment.
"Most hospitals have way more medical equipment than they really need," she said. "And they tend to have more than they need because they want to make sure that they have enough so when a patient needs an item it's there, they never have to wait for it."
So far the VA has installed the tracking system at only a handful of hospitals in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. But Kimberly Brayley, the VA's project director, said nurses and other staff members are already using the information to offer suggestions for saving time and money.
"I think that once we have a base implementation throughout all of VHA, it's going to be hard to keep up with everyone's ideas of how they can use this technology to improve their work," she said.
Brayley said improved efficiency will mean staff can spend more time on patient care. For example, she said, hundreds of temperature monitoring devices now manually checked and logged will be automated.
Medical supply inventory that now takes a full day will take only minutes. With the click of a computer mouse, the system will automatically re-order supplies.
Brayley expects the VA adoption of electronic tracking to increase use of tracking systems across the medical industry.
"We have a responsibility to reduce the cost of healthcare globally," she said. "And anything VA can do not only within our system but sharing it outside, how we've done that, I think could help change the way we deliver care and hopefully thus reducing the cost of care."
That's already happening, said Tweten, of Intelligent InSites. For several years, she said, hospitals have been focused on implementing electronic patient medical records.
"We do see a transition as those get established the industry now paying attention to the idea of operational efficiency," she said. "We're already seeing a lot more interest in this area happening at the executive hospitals looking to see how they can use systems such as this to improve their performance, efficiency and cost reduction."
Tweten won't say how many employees Intelligent InSites will hire to meet the growing demand, but she said the company expects significant growth in the next year.