In times of catastrophe – whether it’s a natural disaster or man-made – healthcare providers are on the front lines of every emergency response. In the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic, hospitals are preparing for or dealing with, sudden surges of acute care needs, which puts a lot of strain on resources, both human and financial. Contact tracing is one of the ways to limit the spread of the virus after lockdown.
As medical facilities and teams rapidly shift operations to address the crisis throughout the evolution of its various stages, technology is being leveraged to make the best use of available resources. By employing real-time location systems (RTLS) to track staff, patients, and equipment, hospitals have a powerful tool to perform automated contact tracing, in a way that both optimizes resources and ensures the privacy of staff and patients.
Using RTLS for Contact Tracing
If there are adequate resources, contact tracing is a very effective and robust strategy to control infectious diseases. Typically, at the start of an outbreak, public health agencies will contact asymptomatic cases to identify all of the people they had contact with starting 48 hours prior to the case developing any COVID-19 symptoms. Contacts are notified of their exposure and asked for self-isolate to prevent onward transmission.
Due to the intensive nature of collecting and managing data, digital contact tracing tools can expand the effectiveness, reach, and efficiency of the process, versus relying solely on conversations and memory to determine all of the possible exposures.
An article in The New Yorker examined how exhaustive surveillance efforts in South Korea appeared to be successfully ‘flattening the curve’ of the disease’s infection rate trajectory. Health authorities are using credit card payment information, CCTV footage, cell-phone GPS data, travel and medical records in addition to oral testimony in their contact tracing; however, there are privacy concerns about the release of information to the public—even if personal and identifying details of the infected person has been removed.
Maintaining Security and Privacy
In a hospital environment, an RTLS system can be deployed to support healthcare providers in the timely and accurate contact tracing of patients, staff, and equipment, while ensuring the data gathered remains confidential and private. Since the RTLS systems are secure, contact tracing and identification can be performed entirely within the healthcare organization without the risk of a breach of privacy for staff or patients. In addition, real-time location systems integrate with complementary systems like CCTV and access control as additional tools to assist with contact tracing in an outbreak.
Saving Time Through Automation of Data Management
Considerable time and human resources are saved in the automation of collecting data on the interactions between patients and staff, and patients and equipment. If, for example, a staff member needs to determine the associations of a particular patient once they are admitted to the hospital, they can easily run a contact tracing report that selects the critical information needed.
For instance, a contact tracing report might show which rooms the patient was in, the equipment that was used in their care, which staff that interacted with the patient, and the amount of time that was spent during each interaction.
One of the unusual aspects of COVID-19 is that infected persons can be asymptomatic and contagious for up to 14 days. There have been many reports of patients visiting an ER for treatment for other illnesses or injuries, only to test positive for the disease, yet show no symptoms. With an RTLS contact tracing system, it’s possible to do quick, accurate historical reporting without the need to rely on memory when hospital staff are already stretched to capacity.
More Efficient and Effective Communications
When healthcare staff have data that accurately shows the path of a suspected case, time is also saved in the formulation and execution of communications. Depending on the exposure risk level, staff have the capability to deliver customized messaging that delivers important information, without causing unnecessary anxiety to recipients.
For example, communications to staff who came in direct contact with a suspected case may be different than the communications sent to staff or visitors who were not in the hospital at the same time as the case.
In a health crisis, automated data management through an RTLS contact tracing system assists hospitals in optimizing their resources. It eliminates the burden of manual reporting and offers speedy, accurate data to execute contact tracing while preserving the security and privacy of staff and patients.