By Julian Bajkowski
Healthcare providers in the public and private sectors are increasingly looking to fit controversial tracking devices to people as well as equipment in an effort to improve patient and public safety while also boosting the productivity and availability of costly hospital assets.
According to the country manager for Allied Telesis Australia, Scott Penno, integrated communications and data network infrastructure now being deployed in the heath sector is resulting in a blend of wireless tags, sensors and hotspots that can pinpoint people and equipment to create “virtual boundaries” and keep an eye on potential wanders.
Speaking at a health technology round-table discussion hosted by analyst firm Frost and Sullivan in Sydney on Monday, Mr Penno said that the tracking technology is being increasingly being adopted in aged care, infant care and keeping track of patients who require medical isolation.
The tracking devices are usually embedded in wristbands and have been used in the aged care sector for some time. However they have also aroused controversy because they essentially forgo a patient’s privacy in exchange for a clear picture of their movements.
Although the devices have clear opponents, they also raise the contentious issue of whether they are essentially a lesser evil than restraining or sedating patients that are difficult to care for because of their tendency to wander.
One benefit of the trackers is that they can allow nursing and medical staff to quickly locate people under care at key times; such as when medication is due to be given or when visiting specialist staff arrive.
Mr Penno said a key reason the tracking trend was happening is that once separate systems used to television, video, surveillance access control, nurse call systems and data have now converged into a single set of physical infrastructure.
He said convergence had resulted both in lower costs and that applications and services are now integrated more easily.
But the spread of location-based tracking in healthcare is no longer being restricted to the aged.
Mr Penno said the same kinds of technologies are now being applied to babies and infants in maternity hospitals.
One risk many hospitals appear keen to avoid is the potential for children to be removed without authorisation – in the worst cases child abduction.
A big issue that public and paediatric hospitals is keeping children suspected of being at risk of harm – sometimes from parents or relatives discreetly under surveillance in order to help prevent their removal.
A further sensitive area is children who are in middle of custody disputes where access by one or more parents is being contested.
Frost and Sullivan estimates that that the Australian health IT market is worth more than $780 million in 2012 and is expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2018.
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