Some hospitals are tracking Covid-19 by adding sensors to employees' badges

Key Points
  • SwipeSense started off by tracking whether staff at hospitals were correctly washing their hands. It also monitors expensive assets, like wheelchairs. 
  • Now, for the first time, it's tracking people's movements. 
  • That's a form of contact tracing - but inside the four walls of a hospital. 
SwipeSense uses sensors in badges to track the coronavirus

Around 50 hospitals today use a technology from a company called SwipeSense to monitor whether medical staff are washing their hands when they enter and exit patient rooms. Others use it to track expensive assets, like wheelchairs or IV pumps, which have a tendency to go missing. 

The system leverages sensors embedded into equipment and location beacons in hospital rooms, which connect to an online dashboard. Administrators can access the dashboard to check in, or receive reports. 

Because of privacy concerns, SwipeSense has steered clear of monitoring people's movements. That is, until Covid-19. 

When hospitals started reporting that their staff had contracted the virus, SwipeSense's chief executive Mert Iseri figured he could help. The situation was particularly problematic when hospitals lacked sufficient personal protective equipment. Reports have found that at least 879 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel have now died of the virus. 

So Iseri had the idea of adding sensors to staff badges, which they routinely wear on shifts. From there, the company could create a virtual floor map of sorts to track their movements, including to document potential exposure to Covid-19 inside the hospital. 

The idea was if a patient, doctor, nurse or any other hospital employee was diagnosed with the virus, SwipeSense could pull up a map with little dots, representing people, and administrators could go back in time to determine who might have been in close proximity. From there, the hospital could take steps to isolate and test them for the virus.

Iseri emailed some of the company's existing customers in March to explain the concept and see if anyone was willing to give it a shot.

"We got huge interest," he recalled. About 10 of the hospitals got the message and 3 immediately said yes. Health care sales cycles and implementation of new software can take months, but these customers were willing to move forward in weeks. 

'We could flag when a patient tested positive'

One of the first customers to get on board was Edward-Elmhurst Health in Illinois. The hospital had treated its first Covid-19 patient in early March, and anticipated a surge. 

About 3,600 hospital workers at Edward-Elmhurst agreed to sport a SwipeSense badge, including doctors, nurses and workers assigned to clean patient rooms. By the end of March, the hospital had a functioning dashboard that administrators could use to monitor exposures. 

"We could flag when a patient tested positive, and see whether a staff-member went in and how many times they went in," said Raj Iyer, the chief data analytics officer.

Some of the hospital's employees were concerned that their managers would use the data to track their productivity and penalize them if they took long breaks. Iyer reassured them that the sole purpose of the system would be to catch Covid-19 outbreaks, and not to monitor their movements. 

And so far, it seems to be working. In one recent case, Iyer said that a patient unexpectedly got a positive result from a Covid-19 test. Iyer's team used SwipeSense to figure out how many people had been in that patient's room. They determined that 75 employees were at risk, and asked them to get tested and isolate themselves for 72 hours. One of them tested positive, but was isolated and prevented from spreading the virus further.  

As a result of this work and other efforts, including frequent hand washing and masks, the percentage of staff testing positive for COVID-19 at the facility went from 17% at the peak in March to less than 1% by June. 

'Doing everything we can'

The SwipeSense system is form of "contact tracing," an epidemiological method that involves tracking down and notifying those who might have come into close proximity to a person diagnosed with an infectious disease. But in this case, it's limited to a particular business, rather than a city, state or country.

Aspects of the system might sound like Big Brother. Iseri, who's well aware of the potential privacy and security implications, notes that the company and its customers are taking steps to alleviate the 'creep' factor. For starters, the SwipeSense isn't tracking individuals throughout their day and there are no beacons outside of patient rooms -- they can't track people when they go to the bathroom, for instance.

Still, he acknowledges there are risks when it comes to monitoring people rather than things. And these kinds of tools can always get into the wrong hands. "We have to be really thoughtful about the technology we're building," he said. 

Another customer using the SwipeSense technology for contact tracing is Methodist Hospital of Southern California. 

For Clifford Daniels, a senior vice president and chief strategy officer at the hospital, it's not just about keeping staff safe. Daniels is also looking for ways to reassure patients about coming back in.

In the early days of the pandemic, many hospitals agreed to delay non-urgent and essential 'elective' procedures. In some cases, that cost them millions of dollars per day in lost revenue. But now, health systems across the country are starting to reopen their doors to patients that still need that knee replacement or colonoscopy. 

"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," said Daniels. In addition to SwipeSense for contact tracing, his hospital and many others are implementing temperature checks, masks, and symptom checks.

"There would be a lot less coronavirus if the rest of the country starting doing what hospitals are doing."

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