Keeping track

Technology that uses Wi-Fi and ultrasound to track hospital equipment could improve patient care. Ellie Zolfagharifard reports



Technology that uses Wi-Fi and ultrasound to track hospital equipment could improve patient care.


The tracking system, developed by Airetrak, is designed to address the issue of lost equipment in environments that have an existing Wi-Fi infrastructure. Hospitals, which are some of the biggest adopters of Wi-Fi in the UK, have been targeted by the company as an ideal area to use the technology.


‘Typically, you can have 20,000 bits of equipment moving around the hospital at any point in time,’ said Roger Willmott, the chief executive of Airetrak. ‘You can imagine in a large hospital you have multiple buildings, multiple floors and multiple wards, so it can sometimes be difficult to find equipment.


‘The average price of equipment is £2,000, so not being able to find something when it’s needed not only has a huge impact on financial issues, but also patient care and safety as well.’


The technology works like a GPS system but indoors. A Wi-Fi tag that emits a radio signal is attached to the equipment and the strength of the radio signals can be used to calculate the location of the equipment.


Willmott explained: ‘Once a Wi-Fi LAN [local-area-network] system is installed, we are able to use those to triangulate onto a small tag that sends out the signal. Accuracy depends on how much wireless network is in place. With a basic wireless network, you may be looking at 2-3m to 5-10m. However, we also have a hybrid solution that combines wireless and infrared to provide room information, which is particularly helpful in hospitals.’


Ultrasound positioning is achieved by using tags that emit an ultrasound signal. That is then picked up by ultrasound receivers throughout the hospital’s wards. Ultrasound travels short distances and is blocked by doors and other barriers, providing room-level accuracy.


According to Willmott, around 80 per cent of hospitals in the UK have some sort of wireless LAN network. He forecasts that, within the next three to five years, every hospital in the UK will have a comprehensive system, paving the way for the widespread use of the technology.


He said: ‘At the moment, we’re probably talking to around 80 to 90 hospitals and a lot of them are keen to do it in the near future. However, it all comes down to budgets and the adoption of the wireless LAN, so while the technology is in place, it will still take some time.’


Both Wi-Fi and ultrasound can be used in a variety of applications. Following successful deployment in hospitals, Airetrak intends to focus on its use in care homes, where tracking can be used to enhance the level of care.


Bob Cockshott, director of the Location and Timing Knowledge Transfer Network, said: ‘Airetrak’s hospital tracking solution is a wonderful example of the positive impact location and timing technologies can have on our everyday lives. It’s great to see the technology being exploited in such an innovative and socially beneficial way.’


Ellie Zolfagharifard