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Vol 22, No. 04, April 2018   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
IoT helps healthcare providers deliver the right treatment to the right patient
The healthcare industry faces a myriad of challenges. The traditional way of delivering patient care by dividing their attention between treating patients and handling administrative matters is not sustainable. With technology, doctors and nurses can free up their minds and hands to focus on providing quality service. By George Pepes

Healthcare workers of all stripes, from nurses to doctors, can attest to the challenges of working in the industry. Long working hours and insufficient manpower, compounded by the need to attend to multiple patients with varying symptoms and complications – mean that there is always the possibility of human error. While Singapore has developed a reputation for top-notch medical care within the region,1 a private hospital in the country recently made the news for a medical error.

A couple who had a baby via in-vitro fertilization (IVF) realized that something was amiss2 when their baby did not resemble them, and upon further investigation, it was also found that their daughter’s blood type was also different. They sought a DNA test and the result confirmed that they had unfortunately been victims of a medical mix-up. A stranger’s genetic specimen had been used to fertilize the mother’s eggs. Further investigation uncovered lapses in procedures and human error when the specimens were handled by two embryologists.

While advances in medicine have made many procedures possible to improve our lives, human errors still cannot be eradicated. Any mistake is one too many, especially if it will lead to a poorer quality of life, or even a fatality. Healthcare providers also lose the trust and respect of their patients; this can lead to non-compliant patients, and in the case of private healthcare providers, a decline in patient numbers.

While there is no equivalent data published on Asia, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States – according to researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine. In fact, more than 250,000 Americans die every year from such oversight. Potentially fatal medical mistakes range from surgical complications that go unrecognized, to mix-ups in medications dispensed to patients. However, because death certificates usually do not register medical errors, the real number is never tallied, leading to a severe underestimation of the issue’s significance.

Reducing human errors while retaining the human touch

While healthcare facilities and practitioners have stringent procedures put in place to avoid similar errors, there is always a slight chance of “human error”. In the case of the DNA mix-up, the embryologists deviated from the protocols. Medical-related mistakes are often committed because factors that are hard to control. For example, exhaustion (on the part of medical staff) from long hours of work; or distraction by the multitude of tasks they had to perform simultaneously. It is clear that the industry needs a fix that is quick and effective, and lightens the load for the medical staff.

This is where the Internet of Things (IoT) comes to the rescue. In healthcare, IoT builds a world where smart labels such as barcodes, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, and sensors fixed to objects and linked to the internet, give them a digital voice. Sensors and barcodes can be attached to virtually any item – clinicians, patients, vehicles, equipment, and medication – and with these items transmitting troves of data, insight is gleaned from every corner of the hospital in real-time. Indeed, the most recent report3 from Research and Markets estimates that the Global IoT Healthcare Market will expand at a CAGR of 31.4 percent to reach approximately US$365.81 billion by 2025.

In Asia Pacific, some lighthouse adopters are already looking at incorporating IoT into their healthcare solutions. For example, in Singapore, the government had supported an IoT-based eldercare program called SHINESeniors, which aims to install sensors in elderly citizens’ homes. The sensors monitor the physical environment and the elderly’s conditions (like mobility, sleep quality, and medication adherence) in an unobtrusive manner. Data is collected and visualized in real-time to find the anomalies in the living patterns of the elderly. The program hopes to detect hazards to the elderly’s wellbeing before they accumulate to cause real damage. Community caregivers can then be activated to render help in a timely manner.

Leveraging technology for better patient care

Potential applications of IoT are everywhere in the healthcare environment. Especially with handheld computers that scan barcodes and RFID tags, doctors and nurses can bring care directly to the patient’s bedside. Here are some real-life use cases some countries are exploring to better the quality of patient care:

Medication management: In Singapore and other cities across Asia Pacific, nurses have started using mobile computers to scan the patient’s ID wristband when administering treatment or conducting their rounds in the ward. This positive patient identification (PPID) accurately confirms the patient’s name and date of birth, which the medical staff can verify verbally; and looks for the patient’s medical record.

Japan’s Nagasaki University Hospital is one such institution that has deployed Zebra’s enterprise-class mobile computers to allow nurses to access patient information in real-time, and ensure positive identification of patients to further boost its track record for efficiency and accuracy.

Mobile computers provide a guided workflow with any instructions for administering drugs, underpinning the Five Rights of Medicine Administration, namely: the right patient, the right drug, the right dose, the right route, and the right time. The nurse can also scan the barcode on the drug packet to cross-check that the patient has no allergy to it. The computer is then used to confirm that the medication has been taken, with a note automatically created on the patient’s Electronic Health Record including the drug, time, date, and ID of the nurse.

The critical hour: In many critical medical emergencies, time is of the essence. By tagging the patient with a Bluetooth smart wristband, their status and progress can be tracked from the moment they enter the hospital doors to their time in surgery.

For instance, the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) in the Netherlands has deployed the Time Tracking Solution for acute myocardial infarction patients. LUMC’s Cardiology Department set up the Door-To-Balloon (DTB) Task Force focused on ischemic time in heart infarction patients. DTB is the crucial period from when the patient enters the hospital to when the blockage is removed to restore blood flow by inflating a balloon during primary percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). To reduce DTB time, real-time, accurate time tracking, evaluation and feedback is essential.

Zebra worked with LUMC to develop a visibility solution to enable the hospital to track patients and provide real-time feedback on DTB time. The real-time data provided allows all members of the caregiving team including cardiologists, ED physicians, nurses, EMS staff, technicians and administrators to focus on the reduction of DTB time.

Wrong blood in the tube: Despite everyone’s best efforts, mistakes happen when taking blood in busy wards. By using mobile computers and printers, these human errors can be avoided. Nurses can use mobile computers to view what tests are needed, scan patients’ wristbands to confirm their ID, be guided through the blood collection process, and print barcode labels using mobile printers that are affixed to the sample.

All of this takes place at the bedside, which we all know is vital to ensure that errors are avoided. The barcode ensures that the vial is always identified correctly, and it can be tracked across the sample workflow – from the ward, its journey to the lab, and then into the lab itself. This watertight system makes sure there is one sample and one label for one patient, mitigating the chances of careless mistakes occurring in the process.

The healthcare industry faces a myriad of challenges. Doctors and nurses must divide their attention between treating patients and handling administrative matters. This traditional way of delivering patient care is not sustainable. With technology, doctors and nurses who see hundreds of patients every day will be able to leave the laborious, manual tasks to the machines, freeing up their minds and hands to focus on quality service. With the help of IoT technology, healthcare personnel will be able to drive increased efficiency, render more personalized healthcare, and – most importantly – deliver accurate and error-free treatments or medical procedures, carving a new path out of the old way of treating patients.


  • 1 https://www.stb.gov.sg/industries/healthcare
  • 2 http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/court-dismisses-appeal-over-ivf-sperm-mix-up-8581384
  • 3 http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-iot-healthcare-market-to-grow-at-a-cagr-of-314-by-2025---analysis-by-component-connectivity-technology-application-end-user--geography---research-and-markets-300472441.shtml

George Pepes is the healthcare vertical solutions lead at Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific.

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