Geolocation and inventory of equipment in hospitals and other medical facilities using BLE and RFID technologies

Locating medical devices is a problem in every hospital. Situations where the inability to find equipment results in the failure to perform equipment reviews pose a direct threat to the health of patients and staff. Moreover, the time staff spend looking for equipment can amount to work-months even in a small hospital, and the larger the unit, the greater the scale of the phenomenon. Therefore, RFID or BLE solutions are extremely important as they allow for easy tracking and locating of both beds and a wide range of medical equipment, both for use by clinical staff in treating patients and for planned reviews by internal service engineers and/or external service.

Two technologies, with somewhat different modes of operation and applications, are BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) and RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification). The former is based on so-called Beacons, which are devices that communicate with a network of other Beacons and antennas, collectively creating a network infrastructure. It is an active technology, meaning the Beacons have their own power supply, allowing them to send a signal to the infrastructure at a set frequency or under certain conditions, such as device movement. A complete infrastructure, also consisting of directional antennas, where a server aggregating data from the Beacons is at the end, allows for the recording and analysis of precise geolocation information of devices, including the ability to generate so-called heatmaps, graphically illustrating the locations of the beacons.

The second technology, RFID, is based on passive codes that are read through gates and scanners, also manually. Thanks to simpler, no-power-required codes, this solution is perfect for conducting asset inventory and quick database searches, which can sometimes count even tens of thousands of items. Like BLE Beacons, this solution can also be used to track patients and hospital resources in real-time. However, the difference is that with an RFID-based system, we can only determine that a certain object, which has an assigned RFID tag, was near a scanner or gate. Therefore, to ensure proper accuracy, the entire object must be covered with a network of gates. To achieve the accuracy of BLE technology, a high density of gates is therefore required.

BLE and RFID are not used for the same purposes: RFID is mainly used for point inventory of equipment by moving with an RFID scanner and scanning all RFID tags installed on the equipment. The advantage is that RFID labels are passive (do not require power) and are not expensive.

BLE technology is used to locate equipment and patients in real-time throughout the facility, to save time needed to find them, to learn how long they stay in a certain area, to receive notifications about them leaving certain areas, etc.

Which technology to choose?

The above-discussed technologies serve different purposes. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. BLE is applicable where efficient tracking with high accuracy is expected. RFID is great for asset inventory when it needs to be conducted quickly and efficiently. It is no coincidence that it is successfully used, for example, in logistics for automatic pallet inventory or in stores like Decathlon, which uses RFID labels on all products sold, allowing their customers to see a summary at the checkout by simply placing products in the basket. In turn, the logistics of this company receive an automated system that flawlessly updates warehouse information down to racks and shelves.

Features of BLE technology

  1. Technology based on BLE Beacons
  2. Power supply at the tag level
  3. RTLS (Real-time locating system) technology
  4. Scalable location investigation accuracy (up to 6 meters)
  5. Easier to expand with a simultaneously wider reading range
  6. Possibility of partial use of existing WiFi infrastructure
  7. Cheaper gateways, more expensive tags

Features of RFID technology

  1. Scanning based on RFID gates
  2. Power supply at the reader/gate level
  3. RTLS (Real-time locating system) technology
  4. Precise movement information only in the vicinity of the gate
  5. Scalable reading accuracy depending on the number of gates
  6. Shorter range of devices dictated by technology
  7. More expensive gateways, cheaper tags

Geolocation of medical equipment is possible with both BLE and RFID

The cost of implementing RFID or BLE based RTLS solution

As mentioned earlier, both these technologies – BLE and RFID – can serve different purposes. Primarily, RFID technology can have broader applications than BLE. If we wanted to achieve the precision of BLE using RFID technology, we would have to install gates in a similar quantity as BLE anchors (devices transmitting the signal from beacons).

On the other hand, if we wanted to use BLE technology for the inventory of all assets in a large hospital with tens of thousands of fixed assets and low-value equipment, the cost of Beacons would be too high compared to the savings obtained.

We particularly recommend:

  1. RFID technology for units that want to extend the capability of locating equipment and additionally conduct inventories.
  2. BLE technology for units that want to quickly build a scalable infrastructure to start tracking devices such as beds, patient monitors, infusion pumps and others.
April 5th, 20244 min
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