Updated: Jun 21, 2020
If the coronavirus crisis has reinforced anything it is that health care is a most precious resource.
The workforce and assets are the lifeblood of any health system and the way they are allocated and used is a critical issue.
Location systems can help improve efficiency and the aim of this article is to give you an idea of the solutions available.
We will make the case for Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) to be considered as the emerging standard for indoor location systems, while at the same time appreciating that other solutions also exist for various scenarios.
The case for improving efficiency generally was well made in this Nursing Standard article
The article says:
Nurses are tasked with delivering effective and efficient care, as well as improving patient safety, experiences and results. The reduction of waste in service delivery, care and treatment can release time and resources for nurses to engage in direct patient care.
But what is the best location solution, and does the solution have to involve RFID.
Location tech is developing at a pace and there is now more than one solution available in the market.
In the past the solution has inevitably involved RFID, WiFI and Bluetooth.
But because of the twin challenges of range and accuracy, the emerging standard now is for Ultra-Wide Band (UWB), which provides for greater accuracy.
But there are circumstances where the need for precise accuracy is not so pressing.
Here we look at the pros and cons of various location tech solutions on the market.
RFID stands for radio-frequency identification and an indoor positioning system using this technology is typically comprised of transponders and readers, where signals are received, and a different one sent out in return.
Working as a kind of beefed up radar, they allow for real time knowledge of every tagged asset. This can be items of equipment or people.
They can also offer a seamless and secure way of allowing people to access specific areas, without the need for memorising and entering identification numbers.
An RFID system is best used for mobile assets, with certain types of tags being low cost, small and easily attached to devices.
A passive tag can track assets and other items in areas where WiFI is not available.
An active tag however is large and may need more maintenance. Batteries would have to be changed occasionally. Installing active tags can also be expensive, although passive tags are cheaper.
Also, and active tag can only function over WiFi and tags outside the range will not be detected, which means that they require an infrastructure of receivers.
Passive RFID does not track in real time, meaning that they should only be used for solutions where that is not required.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons are the cornerstones of this type of indoor positioning system.
They can be used to detect when a tag is within range of a beacon, and the tag’s position can be calculated if it is in range of more than two beacons.
Beacons are small, and cheap but they rely on battery power to function. Battery technology is improving but they still require a maintenance programme to make sure they are working.
There is an argument that no-one has yet done anything amazing with the technology, but they can certainly provide a gold mine’s worth of data.
Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) positioning is always useful where the position of objects in buildings is required to be measured with a very high precision, to 20cms or even less.
If the customer’s needs are to discover an object’s position with an accuracy of between 5 and 15 metres, then WiFi -based positioning is worth considering. Beacons can typically provide a precision of between 1 and 3 metres.
As well as having very high sampling rates, which greatly reduces system latency (the transfer of data), UWB positioning is done with a different method of determining an object’s place in three dimensions.
Where BLE measures signal strengths to determine position, UWB utilises time of flight, the amount of time a signal takes to reach a receiver, to determine where an object is located.
Also, because UWB signals use low power, interference is reduced or removed with other technology – such as mobile phones – which are using parts of the radio spectrum
Real time location systems (RTLS) may or may not need pinpoint accuracy if there are other important considerations to consider. These considerations may include cost and how easy a system is to implement.
UWB systems are also superb for mapping the location of various items, for example in a hospital or a warehouse.
This makes them particularly useful where social distancing is paramount. A location system using UWB, because of its high accuracy, can signal if people come too close.
They are particularly useful from a health and safety point of view, too. They can be used to shut down a machine if an employee steps to close.
However, there is no denying that the equipment needed for UWB systems can be much more expensive than BLE, for example.
Tags and readers for BLE systems can be a multiple of times cheaper than UWB.
Readers in UWB systems are more expensive because more of them are needed to calculate location accurately. They must be fine-tuned to be able to synchronise accurately with each other part of the system.
Whatever indoor location technology you use it can provide a wide range of benefits across the healthcare sector.
These can include resource efficiency. If you know where your assets are, then it’s easier to improve operational efficiency.