Special report: Keeping the NHS moving

BBH looks at the vital role hospital porters play and how technology can help to optimise services and drive efficiency

Porters have a key role to play in keeping hospital services running, but they are often overlooked and the way they work is outdated and inefficient

Porters are one of the often-unseen and unrecognised cogs that keep a hospital running – the oil in the engine of acute healthcare.

They not only move patients between wards and departments, but they also ferry goods and vital supplies including medical equipment, linen, blood, and samples.

And their role has proved particularly critical during the COVID-19 response, where they have played a major part in maintaining flow throughout hospitals, despite their numbers being reduced due to ill health and self isolation.

No-one really thinks about porters and very little investment is made in this area, but they are intrinsic to the running of hospitals

But portering still remains an underfunded area of healthcare delivery and one which has not seen the kind of technological transformation that other services and departments have in recent years.

A lack of visibility

Speaking to BBH, Deb Sutton, director of client support at TeleTracking, explains: “Portering, like cleaning, is a ‘Cinderella’ service in hospitals. No-one really thinks about porters and very little investment is made in this area, but they are intrinsic to the running of hospitals in general and much can be done to make the service more efficient.”

Traditionally, most hospitals have a dispatcher – a single person who sits at a desk taking calls from across all wards and departments where a porter is needed.

At the moment, with the coronavirus outbreak, every second counts and there is a pressing need to optimise ever-decreasing resources

When porters have finished a job, they return to the central control or porters’ lodge where they will pick up their next job.

Sutton said: “The first problem is there is usually only one phone, so a busy nurse trying to book a porter will have to keep ringing until they get through. Then they have no idea how long it will take for that porter to come. It could be five minutes or three hours.

“There is a complete lack of visibility and often when the porter gets to the ward they get reprimanded by the nurses because it has taken longer than expected for them to arrive, when they are just trying to cover all the demands.

“The portering manager doesn’t know where they are and their ability to manage the service is compromised. They do not know if they are spending all their time in radiology or in the pharmacy, or they are just out having a smoke.

“This lack of visibility is very inefficient.”

While some hospitals have pagers or radios, these may not work across the whole network and they rely on the porters answering the bleeps.

Sutton said: “At the moment, with the coronavirus outbreak, every second counts and there is a pressing need to optimise ever-decreasing resources and this lack of visibility regarding both porter location and performance is compromising a very-stretched system.

Many hospitals using TeleTracking's automation technology report productivity improvements of 20%

Automated and efficient

“Why should highly-stressed individuals spend time trying to get through to the single dispatcher, often making repeated calls because the line is engaged? And how, with no view of where any porter may be in the hospital, can one dispatcher efficiently allocate tasks?

The process is outdated, inefficient and unnecessary and it is compromising performance and affecting patient outcomes

“The process is outdated, inefficient and unnecessary and it is compromising performance and affecting patient outcomes.”

This is where technology can have a hugely-positive impact.

TeleTracking’s automation technology eradicates the need for any dispatchers – saving between £60,000-£150,000 a year, depending on the size of hospital.

Through real-time visibility requests for a porter can be made within seconds, and the clinician has full visibility that a porter has been dispatched, both on digital whiteboards located within wards and departments and on mobile devices.

This radically reduces the time spent by clinicians requesting and chasing portering services, freeing up additional time to care.

Many existing hospitals are routinely reporting 20% productivity improvements following deployment of the solution.

“With real-time visibility of the location of every porter, job allocation can be optimised,” said Sutton.

“Jobs are booked through the system and then change colour as they are picked up and completed, making the whole process visible.

“More importantly, the jobs are allocated to the nearest suitable porter and this helps to cut down on unnecessary travel times and the need to report back to base in between jobs.

“Say, for example, the patient needs two porters, or requires oxygen, or the porters need protective equipment due to the risk of infection; this is known at the time of booking, so time is not wasted when they turn up and find they don’t have the right kit.

With real-time visibility of the location of every porter, job allocation can be optimised

“It also prioritises patients, so it’s no longer about the person who shouts the loudest, helping to eradicate the somewhat-arbitrary allocation that can often occur with manual dispatch and also ensuring a fairer distribution of work to all porters.”

Achieving best practice

The tracking solution – described as ‘Uber for porters’ – also provides management with detailed insight into the performance of both the portering service and individual team members, supporting the use of bonus incentive schemes that further increase productivity.

“Information includes the average number of jobs undertaken per hour, the number of jobs that are cancelled or rescheduled after dispatch, the average pending time to dispatch, average response time, and average trip time,” says Sutton.

“This insight can be invaluable for clinicians in both planning and informing patients of when they will be moved.”

Furthermore, with complete visibility of all porters, many trusts are able to move away from dedicating porters to specific departments and provide a completely-shared portering service across the entire hospital site.

“The benefits are significant, with trusts gaining more-productive portering hours throughout,” explains Sutton.

Porters are the oil in the engine and for a relatively-small investment in new technology, we can achieve really-impressive efficiencies

“With clear insight into productive time versus available time, trusts can also determine the required level of portering resources.”

Deploying the solution is relatively straightforward, with some infrastructure requirements, including whiteboards and ceiling-mounted RFID beacons for the track-and-trace functions, although these are already in place in most new-build hospital developments. They can, however, be retrofitted in around three weeks in most cases.

The app can then be downloaded onto smartphones and other devices.

“Portering is something so important to the running of every hospital, but often not considered and under-recognised,” concludes Sutton.

“But porters are the oil in the engine and for a relatively-small investment in new technology, we can achieve really-impressive efficiencies – a 20% productivity gain at one London hospital trust alone.”

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