- Sensor technology has been used by hospitals to monitor hand-washing behaviors and keep track of expensive equipment, but the coronavirus pandemic has opened up a new application for contact tracing of COVID-19 cases.
- Adding a sensor to staff ID badges, medical technology company SwipeSense enables hospitals to monitor employee movements, document interaction with potential COVID-19 cases and subsequently identify contacts of COVID-19 positive cases.
- Despite intentions for providing valuable information, the technology also has an inherent potential for abuse of security and personal privacy.
Seeking new ways to rapidly identify and contain cases of COVID-19, some hospitals are using existing sensor technology that has been repurposed to facilitate contact tracing of staff members inside the hospital.1 Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, hospitals were using the sensors, provided by Chicago-based medical technology company SwipeSense, to monitor such best-care medical practices as frequency of hand washing and consistency of bedside visits to patients, as well as to keep track of—and avoid theft of—expensive medical equipment.
Cloud-Based Sensor Network Tracks Movements of Hospital Workers
The SwipeSense system is a cloud-based network connecting individual sensors to a communication hub that can transmit data-tracking activity by department, unit or individual.2 The system works via unique identifiers that are clipped to a health care worker’s ID badge. As the worker goes about his or her day, the sensor collects data from other sensors embedded in equipment or at hygiene stations, tracking how many times the individual enters a given patient’s room or accesses hand-washing equipment.
Hand hygiene has been recognized as a critical practice for preventing hospital-acquired infections (HAI). However, monitoring of individual hand-washing behavior has been approached cautiously, with managers stressing the goal of solving barriers to good hand-washing practices rather than punishing underperformers. There are any number of legitimate reasons a staff member may fail to wash hands upon entering a patient’s room, from lack of alcohol gel to carrying supplies or operating equipment that makes it difficult to always handwash first. As Klaus Nether, executive director of high reliability product delivery at the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare said, “You have to take the time to really understand it, because it is more complex than just reminding someone to wash their hands.”3
Repurposing Sensor Technology for Tracking COVID-19
Because of those types of privacy concerns, SwipeSense had avoided using their technology for individual tracking application, until the coronavirus pandemic set in.4 When hospitals began reporting that staff were contracting COVID-19, SwipeSense’s chief executive Mert Iseri realized sensors added to ID badges could be used to track the movements of individual workers in the hospital, documenting potential COVID-19 exposures and subsequently identifying any contacts associated with positive COVID-19 cases.
Contact tracing is a standard epidemiological disease control tool used to track and notify anyone who may have been in contact with someone diagnosed with an infectious disease. In the case of the SwipeSense badges, the population being tracked is limited to a hospital setting rather than covering a geographic area.
Clifford Daniels, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Methodist Hospital of Southern California, one of the hospitals currently using the SwipeSense badges, is hoping the sensor technology will monitor COVID-19 infections among staff members and also reassure patients about the safety of coming back into the hospital. With hospitals losing significant income over delays in elective and non-emergency procedures during the pandemic,5 Daniels said, “We’re hoping to get across that the hospital is as safe a place as it can be and that we’re doing everything we can to help contain the spread of COVID-19.”
Sensor Tracking Used in Illinois Hospital
One of the first hospitals to embrace the tracking system is Edward-Elmhurst Health in Illinois, where 3,600 hospital workers, doctors and nurses agreed to try using the sensor-embedded badges. When one patient unexpectedly tested positive for COVID-19, the surveillance team was able to determine the number of people who had been in that patient’s room. The 75 employees identified as being at risk were asked to be tested and to self-isolate for 72 hours. One contact employee tested positive, but isolation kept the virus from spreading further.
Crediting the technology as well as other infection control practices, the hospital has reduced its rate of positive COVID-19 testing among staff from 17 per cent at its peak in March to less than one percent by June.
Some of the hospital staff expressed concerns that the information gathered could be used to monitor break times and productivity. However, the hospital’s Chief Data Analytics Officer Raj Iyer stressed that the hospital only wanted to use the system to catch COVID-19 cases, not to monitor employee movements. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the inherent risks of using tools to monitor people, cautioning that “these kinds of tools can always get into the wrong hands… we have to be really thoughtful about the technology we’re building.”
1 Farr C. Some Hospitals Are Tracking COVID-19 By Adding Sensors To Employees’ Badges. CNBC Aug. 2, 2020.
3 Cohen JK. Sensors Helping Hospitals Keep Track Of Hand-Hygiene Performance. Modern Healthcare Oct. 26, 2019.
4 See Footnote 1.
5 Farr C. U.S. Hospitals Are Losing Millions Of Dollars Per Day In The Midst Of The COVID-19 Pandemic — And Recovery May Take Years. CNBC May 5, 2020.