An operating room team member reaches for sterile instruments off the tray while surgeons work in the background
By Wayne Miller | July 20, 2023

Is There Really a Magic Wand for Healthcare Providers? One Hospital Program Director Says, “Yes!”

Each day, we’re finding that one particular technology can solve more and more healthcare-related problems, such as instrument sterility. Find out what it is and what’s driving these rapid discoveries.

Healthcare providers around the world are all under common pressures. The “triple squeeze,” we call it. Rising incidents of chronic illness, an ageing population and a shortage of clinical staff all mean our heroes are doing more with less. Everyone wants solutions that save these front-line workers time and resources, allowing them to do what they do best, which is give their time to patients. However, we can’t solve anything until we fully understand from where problems are stemming. Swapping out some mobile devices or adding a new app to digitalize a task may help hospital staff work a little faster. But neither will alleviate patient queues on their own, mainly because there are many factors impacting patient care capacity, with some of the largest needing specialized technology tools. 

For example, the pandemic unfortunately diverted a lot of clinicians’ time away from patients suffering chronic or deprioritized acute ailments, with hospitals putting the brakes on routine operations as staff dealt with the immediate impacts of the pandemic. But as Covid-related hospitalisations declined and staff started to recover, there was an assumption that life had returned to normal for everyone. Unfortunately, it did not, with life quality actually declining for a huge number of people due to a treatment backlog. Routine orthopaedic operations such as knee and hip replacements were pushed out, making the difference between a happy, active mobile life, or a painful, immobile existence for multitudes. And whilst efforts to get things back to pre-pandemic operational scale has been monumental across the global healthcare community, there remains much more to be done. According to the BMA, in the UK alone, 7.22 million people were waiting for treatment in February 2023, with three million of these patients waiting over 18 weeks. Around 362,500 of these patients have been waiting over a year for treatment, which is 169 times higher than before the pandemic began. 

So how can you and your team make things more efficient to get more procedures done and to alleviate the queues? 

Let’s begin by looking at how operations are done. 

Now, I realize, there are many different types of surgical procedures routinely undertaken at your hospital, and that it’s likely that cataract surgery and caesareans are among them. (They do top the list of procedures across Europe right now, after all.) So, let’s consider what these very different procedures have in common. Each has a sterile surgical tool kit associated with it, provided to surgeons after they scrub in. Then, once the operation is undertaken, the dirty instruments are packed up and sent back off to sterile services, often at a separate location, to be sterilised in autoclaves before being set up again. Typically, the kits are wrapped in plastic to protect from airborne germs before being catalogued and stored in anticipation of their next usage. 

 Though this sterilisation process is great in theory – “reuse and recycle” is always a winning proposition – there is a lot of room for error. Imagine a procedure has unexpected complications and implements are temporarily lost when the team is moving the patient to a new location. What happens then? What if surgeons must use the same limited equipment for multiple operations? How do you ensure that trays, with their finite shelf life prior to re-sterilisation, get used in an efficient order? How do you trace trays back to patients to check devices were not left internally or to alleviate a disease concern such as CJD?

If items are lost, the initial strategy is probably to look for them, which is smart. But this search is going to probably eat up a significant amount of clinicians’ time daily. In one four-hour study, nearly four hours was taken up by eight clinicians searching for assets. That's a 12.5% inefficiency – or a business case for another non-clinical teammate. 

If items aren’t easily – or ever – found, a 'first do no wrong' approach is probably to buy additional stock so no one must spend a second looking. But is this really best? Surgical devices are sold at a premium, making this is a very expensive approach. (So, probably not best.) Factor in the unnecessary cleaning of trays due to poor inventory management and there are additional energy costs and carbon emissions to add to the equation. Then think about an inability to pinpoint where instruments are located which, worst case scenario, can add additional procedures like X-rays and a whole heap of extra anxiety. All these elements combined place a heavy burden on an already stretched team and restricted-capacity system.

 So, I ask you: what if there was a magic wand? One that could free up time. Time that could be reinvested in whittling down waiting lists and giving patients an extra dose of 1-2-1 care. 

Well, the secret’s out. There is. And the wand is real, and its already out there, helping hospitals around the globe regain time to reinvest in care. Perhaps not quite the magic of fairy tales but with spellbinding qualities that are grabbing healthcare leaders’ attention in droves.

Now, our wand is actually an RFID reader and part of a wider tracking solution based on RFID technology. Nonetheless, it’s quite magical. In other verticals such as retail and warehousing, the ‘wand’ is waved around storerooms and, as if by magic, gives instant viewing of whatever stock lies hidden from view. Turn on the item-finder mode and via a series of beeps – much like the ‘hotter, colder’ game of youth – you can track down specific items in no time at all.

 To take away 'yet another task for clinicians', technology infrastructure to enable automation can be strategically placed around a healthcare facility. RFID antennas and readers placed around entry and exit points of an operating room, storage room, or where it makes sense – e.g., at a processing table or at an autoclave – can report item location, even when in motion. Every time an item leaves or returns, it is automatically logged by a unique identification code placed on it via an RFID label carefully designed to withstand whatever the medical device, surgical instrument or kit endures.  

This base RFID infrastructure links to a database where the interesting bit happens. Each asset you’re tracking has data associated with it linked to hospital workflows. In the case of surgical trays, this will include where it was last logged, when it was last cleaned, which patients it was used with, and so on. Suddenly you’ll have instant visibility, alleviating all the aforementioned pains of not knowing where surgical kits are or what state they’re in. You now know the kit is clean, it is being used systematically, all the pieces are present and where it is.

In fact, one hospital in the UK recently completed a Sterile Services RFID project as part of a much wider location solutions rollout. As a result, surgical trays can now be searched for on a desktop PC and the RFID ‘wand’ used to locate them in storerooms. Even if they are in the wrong place, they will be found. This is a huge benefit to patients, as their operations will not be cancelled due to missing sterile trays and instruments. Mitigating risk is key as well. For example, should a heart surgery instrument tray be dropped, another one can be located in seconds, ensuring minimal delay to vital surgery. The hospital’s clinical team says they’re already seeing improvements to patient care, as well as time savings and a reduction in procurement costs.

The magic of a sterile services location solution is that there is less time spent hunting for things, sterilisation becomes more efficient, and patients feel safer. Plus, all this freed time and resource can be ploughed back into patient care. 

So, if you want to know the location and status of your sterile equipment, then contact Zebra’s Healthcare RFID specialist team to discuss how we can work with you to build a similar solution – one that works best for you.


You May Also Be Interested in These Insights

Healthcare, Automation,
Wayne Miller
Wayne Miller

Wayne is the Zebra lead for Healthcare solutions and works to directly improve patient care, supporting partners and end users. Delivering the latest solutions that assist hospitals and healthcare organizations to deliver efficiencies and improve patient care and outcomes. Wayne has worked for Zebra Technologies for 17 years and has a true passion for healthcare, technology and innovation.

Zebra Developer Blog
Zebra Developer Blog

Are you a Zebra Developer? Find more technical discussions on our Developer Portal blog.

Zebra Story Hub
Zebra Story Hub

Looking for more expert insights? Visit the Zebra Story Hub for more interviews, news, and industry trend analysis.

Search the Blog
Search the Blog

Use the below link to search all of our blog posts.