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Is the wait over? How hospitals can get real-time bed and capacity management right

Written by Simon Hemingway, Healthcare Director at The Barcode Warehouse

The Government has allocated £250 million in funding for NHS trusts to help tackle wait times and prepare NHS trusts for winter, as part of the Emergency Care Recovery plan. The plan highlights how NHS trusts can allocate additional funding to specific pain points within hospitals, including creating more than 900 beds in urgent and emergency care services. Additional funding will also provide NHS trusts with the opportunity to invest in real-time bed and capacity management technologies to ensure long-term sustainability and efficiency within hospital management.

The need to tackle the problem is severe, with a major part of the bottlenecks in hospitals caused by inefficient patient flow. This issue stems from a lack of bed availability in hospital wards, the increased demands placed on hospitals and A&E departments following the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages within the industry. As a result, this is stalling the flow of patients through the hospitalisation process, leading to poor bed utilisation, patients occupying beds when they are fit for discharge and a lack of capacity in social and community care, resulting in lower discharge numbers.

This leads to the widely reported issues we have all seen in recent years relating to corridor care, long triage waiting times and patients waiting for many hours, even days, for updates on their ongoing care. Addressing this core issue effectively will ease the significant strain the NHS faces, especially at peak times.

Hospitals and healthcare professionals have analysed how technologies can help ease the mounting pressure on institutions like the NHS. For example, increased digitalisation of ward management will allow healthcare professionals to support a steady flow of patients from admission to discharge. This can illuminate patient movements through the hospitals, directing them to the correct department pertaining to their ailment, supporting a smoother discharge process and giving indications of which beds are free, or will soon be available for new patients to use. Real-time data can even extend to identifying when a bed is clean, dirty, in use or assigned to an incoming patient, requires maintenance, and supports fewer cancelled procedures all of which further help streamline patient flow and improve patient experience.

Evaluating the entire patient pathway and introducing strategies to streamline patient movement processes will allow hospitals to address the issue at hand. One method of implementing real-time bed tracking and bed management is with the use of real-time location system (RTLS) technologies, which can produce live, up-to-date reports on all aspects of patient flow – but there are barriers to overcome before we see this new way of working instilled nationwide. Hospitals must be prepared to address challenges when implementing new technologies into their infrastructure, such as choosing the correct technology partner and how increased visibility and real-time management of patient flow will impact positive patient experiences.


Choosing wisely

With so many technologies and IoT software to choose from, it is important for healthcare professionals to be aware that there is not one standard size that fits all.  Choosing the correct software and hardware partner is vital to implementing patient flow management solutions in a hospital setting, ensuring new technologies can fit within the pre-existing technology infrastructure.

Hospital decision-makers can work closely with IT teams and technology partners to select the correct solution for their hospital layout. Although the desired outcomes can be broadly similar across system solutions, experience has taught us that one size rarely fits all, and careful consideration is needed towards the technology and the project starting point. Hybrid solutions that utilise radio-frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons that can be used across existing IT infrastructure or barcode scanning technology can all be used for improved bed management and bed tracking. RTLS tracking technologies allow medical staff to pinpoint the location of a patient within a ward or department, ensuring their security and safety but also helping to manage their care process. This can also be replicated for medical devices, to provide healthcare professionals with insights into where devices are located and how many are in use. Choosing the correct partner is especially vital now, with government mandates calling on the NHS to adopt barcode technology by March 2024, so businesses must ensure they are choosing a partner who is experienced in implementing solutions within the NHS framework.

Illuminating patient pathways

A patient pathway is created from the moment they arrive at a hospital or healthcare facility, and this flow of movement is tracked throughout their healthcare journey, through to discharge. As hospitals increase their digital capabilities within wards and hospital departments, healthcare professionals are questioning how they can streamline the flow of patients by using RTLS solutions.

RTLS technologies comprise of a wireless system connecting components, an RFID-encoded label, or a BLE-enabled beacon with corresponding readers or sensors. These RFID-encoded labels can also be incorporated into patient wristbands to help improve the patient experience, informing caregivers and family members of live updates relating to treatment milestones.

This increased visibility can provide healthcare professionals with important insight into patient movements and can offer support for patient safety and security. In sensitive cases with vulnerable patients, for example, hospitals can also utilise RTLS for diverse types of patients, offering functions that assist healthcare providers in understanding where safety and security issues are occurring. It is possible to program RFID tags with distinct actions and permissions related to the facility.

RFID solutions can also be deployed for bed capacity management within hospitals. This provides healthcare workers with insight into the allocation and provision of beds, to manage the available bed capacity and help improve patient flow. RFID technologies also allow visibility of bed location and status, providing nurses and doctors with live updates on bed use and status which is critical to improved bed management.

Implementing RFID solutions can help improve bed utilisation within wards and across the hospital, therefore reducing patient waiting times and helping tackle the issue of patient flow. It also saves considerable time and money, providing healthcare decision-makers with real-time information, and enabling them to make data-driven decisions about recourse provision and procurement.


Putting the patients first

Alongside RFID technologies, hospitals have begun exploring the use of real-time bed management solutions to maximise hospital space and help ease the flow of patients from one department to another.

The impact of real-time management offers healthcare experts insight into how many beds are occupied at one time on a ward or in triage/A&E settings. This allows healthcare professionals to make data-driven decisions based on ward capacity and bed availability.

Real-time bed management and RFID technologies work in tandem to monitor patients and bed availability across all healthcare settings. This enhanced insight on a macro level allows healthcare decision markers to highlight problem areas and bottlenecks where delays to patient care and movement are occurring. From this, measures and processes can be put in place to target specific issues to patient flow to help tackle long waiting and treatment times.


The hospital of the future

Building the hospital of the future begins with a choice for all hospitals and healthcare settings. Healthcare experts and decision-makers need to work together, to not only identify the correct technology partner but also highlight the key problem areas impacting the flow of patients from admission to discharge.


Implementing RFID and real-time management solutions can offer healthcare institutions the chance to analyse their hospital, so they can address specific areas in need of new procedures and processes to enhance patient care and experience.