If you get impatient with mazes, chances are you'll have mixed feelings about hospitals. Corridors are often long and winding, and sometimes lead absolutely nowhere. Wards end in one wing and then seem to have hopped over into another. Stairs that one thought might lead to one floor actually deposit you in another strange department with an unfamiliar name derived from a Greek word you've never seen in your life.
Getting lost in a hospital is a leading complaint among visitors. Less appreciated is the propensity for its internal layout to effectively hide vital equipment from doctors and nurses. At the University Medical Centre (UMC) in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, staff were losing wheelchairs at an alarming rate. More often than not, they were appearing in strange departments, or else so far across the hospital that the very act of finding them wasted time that could be spent on patient care. UMC looked to technology for a solution, and approached Fujitsu Components for guidance.
"They were searching for a solution to do track and trace on medical devices," explains Dennis Van Doorn, the company's marketing manager for wireless solutions. Fujitsu responded by arguing for a mesh network, wherein sensors can communicate everything from location data to temperature fluctuations to a centralised software program.
At 40×31×12mm, these so-called smart beacons were small and used such little power that they ran for years off their CR2450 battery cells. What's more, they could be fixed to any piece of equipment, meaning that if a nurse needed to find a wheelchair for a patient, she could simply log into the mesh network and use it to find one with room-level accuracy.
"That is, in a lot of use cases for hospitals, more than enough," adds Van Doorn.
UMC's request came at the right time. After several years fine-tuning the design of its smart beacons, Fujitsu Components had begun working with Wirepas, a company specialising in internet of things (IoT) networking solutions.
"They were searching for a hardware partner, and by coincidence we found each other at the same time," says Van Doorn. "With Wirepas's mesh technology, you can have a battery-powered network of anchor nodes that are very easy to install, with the benefit of not using wires. And with that, we can roll-out asset tracking for the whole building with an accuracy level of approximately 5m."
Selecting Fujitsu's IoT solution for the UFOund pilot project was attractive to the UMC, not least because the company could manufacture and, if necessary, tailor-make its beacons in-house to keep costs down. There was one problem, however: while its system could bring new logistical efficiencies to the hospital, any mesh network underpinned by batterypowered anchor nodes would incur a longterm cost in replacing those batteries. The solution was to pair weave the technology behind the anchor nodes into UMC's existing smart-lighting system.
"All the radio technology that is required for the mesh network is now implemented in the LED fixtures that you can use in the hospital," explains Van Doorn. "By replacing all the lights in the hospital with these smart lights, you immediately have a mains power network covering the whole hospital with the same investment that you would have done for only changing the lights."
This innovative approach drastically reduced the cost of the project. "If you have a hospital-wide mesh network attached to a smart-lighting system, it's even easier and cheaper to install and maintain than using battery-powered anchor nodes," says Van Doorn. What's more, it was eminently practical - every room in the hospital, after all, needs a light. By pairing each one with an anchor node, UMC can now easily visualise where assets like wheelchairs can be sourced, and what equipment is running low. "This combination makes the whole management of medical devices incredibly easy," Van Doorn adds.
Asset tracking is not the only function that can be performed by Fujitsu's IoT solution for hospitals. The mesh network can be used to obtain data on a whole range of other areas. "One thing that is very important to ascertain inside a hospital, preferably on a room-by-room basis, is the internal environmental conditions," says Van Doorn. "Our network is capable of being connected to sensor devices placed up and down the building to obtain this information, and share it to whatever cloud service the hospital has in place."
Fujitsu demonstrated this capability in their proof of concept to UMC. "We were visualising the CO2 levels, humidity and temperature of the hospital rooms," explains Van Doorn. "We started this whole project by just talking with three people about asset tracking. Now, that's expanded rapidly to stakeholders across the hospital who are interested in what the solution can do for them."
That enthusiasm even extended to the facilities manager, who was interested in seeing whether Fujitsu's IoT system might help to alert his cleaners as to which rooms needed their attention. "What we did was integrate some battery-free, wire-free switches into the system," Van Doorn says. "By using the kinetic energy generated by someone pressing one of these switches in a certain room, a Bluetooth signal was sent to our network telling it that the space needed to be cleaned."
Fujitsu's IoT system also began to solve the age-old problem of navigating the maze-like hospital corridors.
"If we enable Bluetooth Low Energy Beaconing on selected anchor nodes in the hospital, any visitor or staff member can use a mobile phone with indoor navigation software (built in the hospitals dedicated app) and see where they are in the building, and be guided to their next appointment or equipment," says Van Doorn.
The success of the system Fujitsu has installed at UMC has spurred interest from other hospitals around the world. "That customer base is really growing," says Van Doorn. "Hospitals in Singapore, China, the Netherlands and across the US are approaching us for help in solving their logistical issues."
In the end, Van Doorn hopes roll-outs of Fujitsu's IoT solution like that at the UMC UFOund pilot project could result in more innovative thinking as to how sensors can centralise asset management in hospitals, and drastically improve patient satisfaction in the bargain. "That is important to us, maybe more important than ever at this point, I believe," says Van Doorn. "What we are offering to hospital managers is efficiency on so many new levels. And that, I think, is pretty unique in the market."