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Hidden costs of missing medical equipment | Viewpoint

Opinion
Article

Hospitals must achieve real-time visibility of their assets to curb the consequences of lost and stolen assets.

Hospitals need visibility of their assets to reduce the risk of lost and stolen medical devices. (Image credit: ©NVB Stocker - stock.adobe.com)

Hospitals need visibility of their assets to reduce the risk of lost and stolen medical devices. (Image credit: ©NVB Stocker - stock.adobe.com)

Issues like staffing shortages and malpractice often dominate the headlines for hospital afflictions. But while not as "news-worthy," the hidden cost of missing medical equipment is an equally pressing challenge that necessitates an immediate solution.

Whether stolen, misplaced or lost, missing medical equipment costs American hospitals millions yearly. In fact, research shows that between 10% to 20% of a hospital’s mobile assets are lost or stolen during their useful life, costing $3,000 per item.

Frequently lost or stolen medical equipment

There are plenty of ways medical equipment goes missing.

On the innocent side of the spectrum are when assets accidentally get mixed in with trash or soiled linens or unintentionally taken by patients as they pack their things before discharge. For example, small items like a sequential compression device can easily get lost between bedsheets and added to the soiled linen pile. More sinister are instances where bad actors deliberately take valuable assets to resell on eBay.

Likewise, because nurses and medical staff regularly encounter scenarios where the equipment they need is not ready or unavailable, some have the unhelpful but understandable habit of stashing and hoarding items in or near their stations for reliable access. Regardless of the reason, the main characteristics linking these commonly missing assets are because they are mobile, and they are frequently used and shared by multiple departments and personnel.

The negative impact of missing equipment on hospitals

Replacing missing equipment is only part of the total expense, as there are also hours of time staff spend searching in vain for medical items, negatively impacting the efficiency of hospital operations. Consider a discharged patient waiting to be escorted out of the hospital by a nurse in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, since there is no available wheelchair, the patient’s stay gets prolonged, which increases the already long wait time for the other patients in the waiting room.

Similarly, when healthcare workers must search for missing medical equipment, the limited time they have to spend treating patients diminishes, reducing the overall quality of care. Additionally, workers are exhausted from increased workloads, and constantly fretting about the limited availability of medical equipment adds stress and anxiety to employees already experiencing high burnout and turnover rates.

Real-time asset tracking: Examples and how it works

One of the most prevalent solutions hospitals deploy to stem the tide of lost and stolen equipment is real-time location systems (RTLS). For equipment like sequential compression devices that get lost with trash and soiled linen, a pre-programmed room-level accurate RTLS will alert staff if a tagged piece of equipment enters the trash or soiled linen holding room. That way, staff can retrieve the equipment before it gets merged with dozens of other soiled linen bags on a different floor or the loading dock dumpster.

While hospitals aren’t retail stores with detectors and alarms at every exit, room-level RTLS can also help them recover lost equipment from incidents of accidental patient theft. These solutions allow hospitals to identify where their tagged equipment went missing and cross-reference that information with electronic medical records. For example, if a device went missing from a room around the same time the corresponding patient got discharged, they likely took it mistakenly. Hospital staff can then politely call the patient and offer to send a FedEx box to have the item returned.

Additionally, RTLS can create a Hawthorne effect, deterring incidents of theft. The Hawthorne effect is the theory that people won’t be so keen to steal from a home or store if they know video cameras or other security systems are monitoring them. Hospitals can create a similar effect by informing staff members that all equipment is tagged and tracked via room-level RTLS, thereby discouraging any would-be thieves.

The harsh reality is that if hospitals don’t put preventive measures in place, their valuable medical equipment will eventually get accidentally thrown out with the trash or intentionally stolen and sold on the internet. This could hinder patient treatment, add to the frustration of staff or impact the bottom line.

While hospitals can’t control the factors that go into misplaced equipment, proactive efforts and technologies like RTLS can cut down on equipment loss and increase savings.

Adrian Jennings is chief product officer of Cognosos.

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