Q&A: Why the NHS needs to invest in track-and-trace technology

We speak to Zebra Technologies about how the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pace at which healthcare trusts are using technology to manage equipment and supplies

Track and trace technology is helping healthcare trusts keep track of vital supplies during the Coronavirus pandemic

Clinicians have had to be very strategic in their use of critical lifesaving equipment, such as ventilators, as well as basic supplies during the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, healthcare administrators have been thinking about ways to improve asset and inventory management for some time now.

COVID-19 simply fast-tracked planned efforts to enhance track-and-trace capabilities within the four walls of acute and non-acute facilities.

Here, we discuss what healthcare systems and hospitals could do better to manage their equipment and supplies during these testing times with two of Zebra Technologies’ healthcare leaders – chief nursing informatics officer, Rikki Jennings; and healthcare lead, Elizabeth Miller.

Q: COVID-19 depleted many hospitals’ inventories of basic supplies, which caused a simultaneous surge in replenishment orders that ultimately strained the supply chain. How can we learn from this and be better positioned to manage inventory moving forward, as well as in an emergency response situation?

A: Jennings: There is a saying that you can't manage what you can’t measure.

Without visibility and insight into the materials and use of the stock levels in general status, as well as location of vital equipment, there is a strong likelihood that clinicians in patient care could resort to stockpiling, or worse yet, be left without the key assets they require to provide the utmost quality patient care.

There is opportunity here to learn from this experience and more widely adopt technologies that bring visibility to the required resources, such as stock levels to those departments responsible for ensuring that there are adequate supplies at the patient’s bedside.

Without visibility into stock levels, organisations could resort to stockpiling or be left without the key assets they require

Q: What would you recommend to hospitals and clinics that want to improve their inventories and asset management capabilities? What's it going to take to eliminate these types of issues once and for all?

A: Miller: At the moment what we’re seeing is society’s adoption of technology, which is driving the utilisation of technology in hospitals and in healthcare around the globe.

And some of those hospitals are at different levels, depending on whether they’re public or private.

Finances are always a challenge, but if hospitals could invest in clinical mobility, that’s going to create workflow efficiency and also better utilise the limited resources that they have.

There is opportunity here to learn from this experience and more widely adopt technologies that bring visibility to the required resources, such as stock levels to those departments responsible for ensuring that there are adequate supplies at the patient’s bedside

I also think they should provide software solutions for inventory management, because many of them currently don't have it. For example, providing barcode items with scanning capabilities so that they can scan medicines, prosthetics equipment, consumables, loaned equipment, etc.

But, most importantly, they need to ensure they have constant real-time visibility of assets and of their people, both in terms of staff and patients.

Looking for equipment is really challenging, so to have this technology available moving forward would be a blessing. I think embracing the digital technology would be advantageous for a hospital moving forward.

Q: Real-time location systems may take some time to deploy in healthcare settings. Are there tools that hospitals and clinics have in place today that could be configured to better support inventory management and asset tracking?

A: Jennings: Absolutely. Today’s clinical environment has really changed, most recently having the reduced foot traffic and less disruption, which is vital to patient care.

Clinicians need to remain focused on caring for patients. During this discussion we have mentioned technologies that are in place today, and those can carry over and start to be utilised immediately to automate tasks and bring visibility to solutions.

These include solutions for barcoding and scanning, as well as clinical mobility, which has so many actionable use cases that can support automation and bring visibility to asset management moving forward.

The lack of automated technologies today that alert to the needs of the status and location certainly can lead to disruption in patient care without the technologies that are in place.

Our clinicians can be reliant on manual processes for notifying other areas and departments that are responsible for servicing this equipment.

Using clinical mobility across the entire enterprise and mobilising all staff members, both clinical and ancillary, to communicate with one another can greatly provide impact.

Zebra Technologies has seen increased interest in its solutions from across the UK and overseas since the start of the pandemic

Q: Could these same technologies or applications help healthcare systems comply with regulations such as the falsified medicines directive or European Union medical device regulation?

A: Miller: Yes. The scanner is always 100% correct. In fact, there are regulatory bodies (TGA and the FDA) that require medical device packaging, whether it be consumables or hardware, have a UDI in the form of plain text and barcoding.

So, the scanning of the information eliminates the risk of human error, which is normally the information that is manually entered into a computer system.

By scanning it, you are eliminating that risk and ultimately maintaining a patient's safety.

For example, if there was a recall or an event, having that technology available directly in the system, and therefore removing human error for incorrect numbers or letters, means you can do that recall immediately. And, ultimately, that’s going to impact the safety of the patient.

Q: I would imagine inventory management is also critical for acting quickly on device or drug recalls as well, right?

A: Jennings: Definitely. Being aware of the recall is really the first step, and it’s a critical step.

The next most-important step is to assure the timely removal of these recalled items, whether they are a device or a medication, so you’re ensuring its use is stopped immediately.

Today’s processes without utilising scanning technology or UDI, however, are very manual and they're labour intensive. They take quite a bit of time to execute and the longer it takes to execute and remove these items from the care areas, the increased risk our patients and our clinicians are at for utilising this device during a recalled time.

Q: I would imagine some training will be needed to ensure doctors, nurses, and other staff know how to use their clinical smartphones or scanners

A: Jennings: Yes, training and user support is vital to technology adoption.

Executing a training methodology that ensures clinicians and all staff are comfortable and aware of both how to use the technologies, as well as its capabilities to influence their day-to-day work, is critically important.

The clinical environment is changing and having that reduced traffic in less individuals in the environment is certainly creating some challenges with technology adoption

Look at multiple modalities to do that training, whether that be in classroom learning or follow-up. And have additional champions or super-users nearby physically present in the care environment to support technology, both at the additional deployment and then routinely on an ongoing basis moving forward.

The clinical environment is changing and having that reduced traffic in less individuals in the environment is certainly creating some challenges with technology adoption.

Looking at solutions such as video on device learning, which put learning educational videos directly on the device that a clinician or a staff member is using, can absolutely influence adoption and then directly relate to the impact of the technology implementation going forward.

A: Miller: I think our current situation globally, healthcare has changed forever.

It’s changed in the way of how we have done things in the past, and I think it's embracing and fast-tracking the use of digital technology - how we do that and what's that going to look like.

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