The Evolving Use Case for RTLS in Healthcare

By Matt Phillion

Real-time location systems (RTLS) have become an important asset for healthcare systems, who use them to improve outcomes, optimize financial performance, cut back on non-clinical burdens, and provide improved safety for support staff.

CenTrak, which offers RTLS solutions for healthcare organizations, recently released ConnectRT, a cloud-based software platform to improve user experience for medical professionals.

“One of the biggest and most important things when it comes to RTLS is interoperability,” says Nick Adriance, director of global product software management for CenTrak. “Seeing the location of something is one thing, but how do you integrate it so that it becomes more of a critical business system? How do you operationalize it so you have a better staff experience and also a better patient experience and better asset utilization?”

RTLS is used to provide actionable data and real-time locating of medical equipment, staff, and patients—it’s commonly referred to as “indoor GPS” for a hospital. But use cases go beyond just tagging assets and it can be used for any number of process improvements.

The overarching concept of RTLS hasn’t altered much, Adriance explains, but rather there have been key changes in how organizations can reduce up-front costs and make the most of the technology. One place the industry is seeing RTLS operationalized earlier and easier is in newer hospitals, as it can be built in from the start.

“There are early adopters who are seeing how to get value out of deploying RTLS and want to say, as a modern hospital, they want it right out of the box for assets or workflow,” he says. “They may start with a small use case but seeing the ROI and how well it works, expand. For example, we reduced a lot of clinician time spent looking for things.”

But while the concept of RTLS isn’t new, more movement to the cloud changes the game, Adriance notes.

“Large EMRs are moving to the cloud, telehealth is growing. How do we get from [on-premises] solutions that are rigorous and hard to maintain and start moving all of these use cases to the cloud and have a cohesive solution we can look at through a single pane of glass?” he says. “And how do we use location data to improve workflows?”

Take patient check-in, for example. With RTLS, it’s possible to check in, activate a badge, see how long patients are waiting, follow their interaction with the doctor, all the way through discharge—all of this monitoring the patient’s location to improve how they flow through their healthcare journey.

“How well are we using clinician time? How are we improving the patient experience?” says Adriance. “RTLS has the ability to generate a lot of data, so how is that integrated and how do hospitals then look at all that data and say, for example, ‘How can we reduce wait times?””

Cutting back on waste

There’s a lot of waste in healthcare, Adriance notes, whether it’s wasted resources, time, or assets. RTLS can help cut back on that waste to help not only with workflows but also with costs.

Where the industry is lacking right now, says Adriance, is visibility.

“There’s an opportunity that healthcare organizations can get out of RTLS by breaking away from the status quo of disjointed technology,” he says.

That disjointed technology and the burden it places on staff can add to one of the most prevalent issues in healthcare right now: staff burnout.

“One of the biggest issues right now is staff duress,” he says. “How do we make sure they feel safe and protected? Because ultimately that translates into better patient safety.”

One example where removing stress for staff leads to improved patient outcomes: hand hygiene monitoring. RTLS can be leveraged to monitor, track, and help encourage improved hand hygiene compliance for staff.

“The hand hygiene process is a rules-based engine: it tracks usage and staff entering and exiting rooms,” he explains. “You’re able to passively use the staff badge to trigger dispenser interactions. Each time you go for the soap or sanitizer it registers as an event. It offers a way to look at departments in aggregate and determine how compliant they are.”

Businesses have implemented hand hygiene standards to follow for compliance, and with RTLS, an organization can look at how well it’s doing.

“You had 1,000 hand washing opportunities and you did 800, so you’re at 80% compliance,” Adriance explains. “And from there, you’re able to monitor and report out to see departments or individuals. For organizations that have to have their hand hygiene compliance down, this can be a big thing. It’s an issue fraught with human error and we’ve been able to take compliance up by 30% for organizations by implementing RTLS in this area.”

Compliance is one thing, but when it comes to tracking, even something as simple as knowing exactly where instruments or tools are matters for clinician happiness and lessening burnout.

“Even something as basic as not spending any time needing to look for an infusion pump,” Adriance says. “There are a lot of use cases in terms of how RTLS can affect a clinician, lots of touch points that lead to happier nurses and doctors, which then trickles down to the patients.”

That patient experience weighs heavily on RTLS as well.

“We’ve all been to a hospital, and we’ve all had good experiences and bad experiences,” he says. “So have a lot of clinicians. When an organization is known for getting to patients quickly, having them seen quickly, and following up quickly, that’s a powerful impact.”

In some ways, the impact is directly experienced by the patient: using the technology to help them navigate the building, for example, or as a way to follow them through their care journey.

“Many of us have been to a hospital and had to make our way to radiology room 1234: How do you get there? These entities can be very large,” he says.

Obtaining buy-in

Implementing RTLS can, if not done properly, be an intimidating process for clinicians, so explaining the benefits up front is important.

“If you say, ‘Hey, we’re deploying this system, but it’s not intended to monitor what you’re doing or if you’re doing your job,’” says Adriance. “It’s intended to help you find assets quicker, to monitor and improve outcomes, and increase safety. Having champions who are advocates for the solution is hugely important at the outset.”

Cost can also be a challenge, with hospitals and healthcare systems under enormous pressure to turn a profit and recover costs.

“If you’re building new hospitals, you can build it into the upfront capital, but for existing structures it’s important to define the return on investment,” explains Adriance. “With that pressure to validate the budget, how you demonstrate the value is key.”

What does the future look like for RTLS?

“I think the technology is shifting,” says Adriance. “The direction we’re moving in uses additional hospital infrastructure to deliver similar use cases, but with lower up-front costs.”

AI is the talk of the town, and it’s possible to use AI to help with the increased data organizations will have available to them with the reporting metrics from RTLS.

“What I’m seeing now is: how do we layer the data on top and make it impactful for leadership and clinicians,” says Adriance. “Everybody hears data and goes to ‘this report’ and ‘that report’ and before you know it, you have so much data. What do you do with it all? In our use cases, we’ve been able to boil it down to the things you really need to know.”

Take asset management as an example.

“How much is spent on rentals, on preventive maintenance? There are ways to pare down the noise and really focus on those fundamental things that impact the organization each day,” says Adriance.

By knowing where things are happening when in the hospital, RTLS offers a means to not just collect a deluge of data, but to do so in a way that can be used to improve processes and reduce unnecessary costs.

“Narrow down the focus of the data and really deliver it in a succinct manner,” says Adriance.

Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at