April 21, 2009, 2:48 PM — A hospital in Thailand famous for medical tourism plans to introduce a few new wireless technologies to control outbreaks of deadly diseases.
Not surprisingly, outbreaks affect hospitals most because that's where people go when they're sick.
Since it's impossible to figure out what's wrong with a person the minute they walk in the door, Bumrungrad International Hospital plans to give them RTLS (Real Time Locating System) tags immediately to track their movements wirelessly.
The goal is to halt the spread of a virus by recording where a patient goes and which doctors, nurses and other people they've been in contact with.
"Once we have that information, we can notify the individuals accordingly so that they can get treated early on as opposed to having the symptoms show and it possibly having been too late," said Chang Foo, chief technology officer at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok.
Bumrungrad's serious approach to safety comes from years working with patients from places around the world including Afghanistan, China and Sweden. It's famous as a place for vacationers to stop in for anything from a check up to a face-lift or major surgery.
The hospital has been fortunate to avoid any major outbreaks so far, but it's location in Southeast Asia suggests it's likely to face one someday.
Deadly diseases thrive in the region and several outbreaks have affected Thailand. Avian flu has killed people there, while mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and malaria are also a threat.
In fact, some of the steps Bumrungrad plans to take are a result of the 2003 outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in Asia.
The disease spread mainly through close person to person contact and killed around 800 people throughout the region, including doctors and other medical workers.
The ability to track a patient's movement as soon as they had entered the hospital could have saved lives.
Singapore Health Services (SingHealth), a hospital group in the city-state, developed a number of technology systems based on its experience with SARS.
Hospital workers found the disease traveled not only on people, but also on hard copy films transported from laboratories to doctors, increasing the potential for disease transmission. That presented a problem because chest X-rays were a primary way to determine if a person had SARS.
The group responded by developing an electronic medical record system complete with digital image management for radiological images such as X-rays.
SARS is not alone in spreading via objects, which is why Bumrungrad International also turned to information technology to reduce the handling of documents and limit the need to move data physically around the hospital.
Germs can hitchhike on hands, medical clipboards, paper, X-ray jackets and many other objects, as well as the people carrying or delivering them.
The hospital partnered with software maker Global Care Solutions to create an electronic medical health record system and digitize much of its other work, a project that grabbed Microsoft's attention.
Microsoft bought Global Care Solutions in 2007 and turned its products into the Amalga HIS system, which it markets in Asia and other places.
"It's made a significant difference," said Foo. "In any traditional hospital you see a lot of paper getting shifted around."
Electronic health records eliminated not only the paper and other objects germs can travel on, but also the need to have people deliver those objects throughout the hospital.
Another example of Bumrungrad's safety efforts is its work to control the spread of viruses on computers -- not digital viruses, but real ones.
Computer keyboards and mice have been major germ spreaders in recent years.
Since they're shared by so many people to access information, they can collect and pass on a host of organisms.
To solve the problem, Bumrungrad turned to rubber.
"Rubberized keyboards can be sterilized easily," said Pat Downing, a former officer at Global Care Solutions and now senior director of Amalga HIS products at Microsoft.
Alcohol wipes and regular baking can kill germ build up on rubberized keyboards, but would damage traditional keyboards.
Wireless technologies are also being used in the battle to stop germ spread, not just outbreaks.
Bumrungrad is well into a three year project to install computers in every patient room so doctors can access records on the spot.
Once in place, doctors will use RTLS-enabled identification cards to check in on the computer in any patient room. The network will know exactly where they are and who is in the room so it can send the digital chart, complete with the latest lab test results, to the doctor immediately.
The doctor won't have to touch a keyboard or mouse.