RTLS and Mobile Medical Equipment: How Hospitals Can Prevent Critical Assets from Going Missing

By Adrian Jennings

Chief Product Officer

January 15, 2024


Hospital staff depend on mobile medical equipment (MME) like IV controllers and wound vacs to ensure the highest quality of patient care. Nevertheless, these items aren’t always readily available for nurses. Frequently, MME can get misplaced, accidentally taken by patients, or even stolen, costing American hospitals millions of dollars annually.

Constantly replacing MME is expensive and inefficient—especially if that equipment is somewhere inside the hospital collecting dust. Moreover, as nurses spend precious time searching for misplaced MME, hospital productivity plummets, and patients aren’t given vital attention. In the worst cases, the patient’s safety becomes jeopardized by missing MME.

The Main Reasons Why MME Goes Missing

Sometimes MME goes missing simply because of the nature of the equipment itself. Hospital staff constantly use these devices, and teams can lose track of them in the chaotic shuffle. Also, some of these items, like a pulse oximeter, are relatively small. If not returned to the proper place, they can get lost. Plus, because hospitals can be large, finding missing MME manually can be time-consuming, to say the least.

Another way that MME goes missing is by getting accidentally mixed with trash or soiled linens. After a patient is discharged or transferred to another unit, hospital staff must swiftly clean and prepare the room for the next patient. Amid cleaning and trash disposal, an asset like a sequential compression device can easily find its way into a mass of bedding or biohazard bags without anyone noticing. In these scenarios, the missing MME will either sit unused in a soiled laundry holding or thrown into a dumpster.

It is important to mention that medical staff may stash vital MME at their stations if the hospital routinely experiences MME shortages due to missing items. While it is reasonable for nurses to hoard MME because they lack confidence in asset availability, this practice is not conducive to an efficient hospital and may have unintended downstream effects. 

While not as common as the previous examples, MME can become lost due to patients accidentally taking said items. Whether a small device falls inside a purse or a patient misunderstands directions and takes a piece of equipment home, patients may inadvertently leave the hospital with MME when discharged. In extreme cases, people will purposefully steal MME to later resale on the internet.

Real-Time Location Systems

Regardless of why and how MME is getting lost or misplaced, hospitals can deploy technology to prevent these items from going missing. One such technology is real-time location systems (RTLS). RTLS isn’t one specific type of technology—rather it is a combination of systems and solutions that help operators and managers in diverse industries monitor and optimize the movement of critical assets. Typically, when a hospital deploys an RTLS solution, mobile tags will get attached to MME, while fixed infrastructure in the form of different wireless technology in the ceiling or walls helps track the location of those tags.

Using RTLS to Prevent MME From Going Missing

Effective RTLS systems will leverage machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to allow hospitals to track MME with room-level precision. Nurses can quickly pinpoint the floor and room of a missing MME, freeing it up for patients when they need it the most and restoring confidence in the availability of critical MME among staff.

By establishing room-level accuracy with an advanced RTLS solution designated staff will get an alert on their phones if a tagged MME crosses the threshold into a garbage or soiled holding room. This visibility of the laundry and trash collection areas allow hospitals to retrieve these missing items quickly.

Likewise, when patients unknowingly or mistakenly take MME, RTLS systems enable hospitals to re-trace the journey of the missing equipment. Case in point: Patient Z gets discharged at 2 p.m., soon the staff realizes a sequential compression device is missing, with a glance at the device's history, it reveals that it was in the same room as Patient Z, who underwent compression therapy. Having connected the dots, the hospital can then politely contact Patient Z and organize the return of the MME.

Although it is unlikely hospitals can use RTLS systems to locate stolen MME, as the thief could remove the tags, it does allow staff to determine that the item is no longer inside the hospital.

What to Look for in an Asset Tracking Solution

Various asset-tracking solutions are available to hospitals, and in the case of RTLS, there are many types of implementations and deployments. More complex RTLS solutions rely on ultrasound, and infrared, and are typically costly–requiring a significant installation and IT commitment–leaving hospital rooms unused during construction projects. Given the cost and disruption, many hospitals elect to only install these expensive systems in select areas throughout the facility resulting in partial coverage and limited return on investment.

More affordable RTLS technologies leveraging Bluetooth are easier to implement and can solve the asset-tracking challenge. In the past however, the combination of signal blockage and reflection caused the accuracy of these solutions to be very poor and unreliable, often not even reporting the correct floor. Recently, AI has made its way into these low-cost sensors to provide a new breed of RTLS delivering high confidence location data that results in high confidence decision-making. This makes it easier for hospitals to track tagged assets without installing expensive room-level infrastructure.

Asset tracking is complex and impacts not only the bottom line of a hospital, but also patients and the staff who put in long hours under stressful conditions. If a nurse needs a wound vac for an emergency, the nurse should not have to search for one. Similarly, when a patient gets discharged, that patient should not have to wait three hours for a wheelchair to go home. No matter how hospitals choose to solve the issue of missing MME, it’s encouraging that there is a wide range of technology available that can help their unique needs.