Location system aims to improve cancer care

At Dana-Farber, software to track patients, staff in real time looks to make visits more efficient

Monitors show the status of patients, staff, and exam rooms. Monitors show the status of patients, staff, and exam rooms. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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In the old days, nurses would listen at exam room doors, straining to hear if anyone was inside. They would hunt down a doctor by knocking on doors or paging a beeper. Signs in the waiting room asked patients waiting more than 20 minutes to go to the front desk.

Now, a new technology deployed on two floors of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s recently opened Yawkey Center for Cancer Care is working to make the process more efficient - ensuring people never wait so long that they feel forgotten. Patients and medical staff wear badges that track their locations in real time, providing basic information intended to streamline a patient’s visit, show bottlenecks, and increase communication between staff members supervising different aspects of a patient’s care.

“Say a husband just dropped his wife off in the garage and comes up and asks, ‘Where’s my wife?’ ’’ said Clare Sullivan, a nurse director at Dana-Farber. “In the old building, it could take up to 30 minutes to locate her,’’ she said, because a cancer patient’s visit can be so complex, involving a blood draw, chemotherapy infusion, or medical imaging - on top of a physician’s visit.

Now, Sullivan can walk to flat-screen monitors and look for the blue icons that represent patients to see where a person is (only first names are displayed) and whether he or she is with a nurse practitioner or doctor, or sitting alone.

The technology, called a real-time locating system, isn’t a new concept. For years, hospitals have been using technologies to track equipment. It’s not just used for ventilators and IV pumps, though. A system at Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, monitors blood products, including things such as temperature.

But more hospitals are beginning to experiment with real-time monitoring of people’s locations for immediate and later use. The systems can let them know when a room empties out and needs to be cleaned, or whether a certain type of appointment typically takes longer than the time allotted.

Mass. General uses technology from Radianse, a North Andover company. Dana-Farber uses products from a Michigan company, Versus Technology.

“Consider a patient coming in for surgery. . . . How long are they waiting? How long are they by themselves? What’s happening with whom? We can start quantifying those things,’’ said Bethany Daily, administrative director of perioperative strategic and business initiatives at Mass. General. She said the technology is not currently being used to track patients, but in the past has been used to track breast biopsy patients.

At Dana-Farber, the electronic maps are about to be upgraded. Already, they provide an eagle’s eye view of the entire floor, showing patients and medical staff, and rooms that are empty (green) or occupied (yellow).

Soon, the system will include “belly timers’’ - numbers that show up on an icon’s stomach letting staff know how long patients have been waiting. It will also be extended to the infusion clinic, showing when chairs are empty or occupied, or allowing the pharmacy to be alerted and begin drug preparation as soon as a patient arrives, to cut down on waiting time.

But members of the medical team said an unexpected benefit has been better communication between staff, who can easily locate one another.

“When we started this, we thought we’d improve the efficiency of our care,’’ said Dr. Craig Bunnell, associate chief medical officer of Dana-Farber. “I think it has improved the quality of care, improved communication between team members.’’

On a recent afternoon, Charlotte Lechten, 77, of Newton, recently diagnosed with a rare cancer, checked in for her third appointment of the day and attached her badge.

Lechten had been at the hospital for hours already when she arrived at the ninth floor, just one of the 300 patients who show up each day for appointments. She was tired, anxious, and ready to go home, and her doctor was running a half-hour late.

Distracted by worry, Lechten took little notice of the badge. Almost immediately, she was called in to have her vital signs checked and was told the doctor might be able to see her earlier.

People like Lechten, Sullivan said, are the reason it is important for medical staff to find new ways to be more aware of how long patients are waiting, and find ways to respond.

“It’s a long day,’’ she said, and people need to get back to their lives.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @globecarolynyj.

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