VA's Real-Time Location System: A way to improve patient safety, or Big Brother?


ByBobBrewin12/05/2011

TheVeteransAffairsDepartmentviewsaplanned$550millionReal-TimeLocationSystemasawaytoensureitshospitalsproperlysterilizemedicalinstruments,improveefficiencyandtrackequipment.VAunionsviewitasaBigBrothersystemthatcouldmonitoremployees.

ThedepartmentisscheduledtoreleaseonTuesdayadraftrequestforproposalsforRTLS,whichwillusesignalsfromWi-Finetworksalreadyinstalledinitshospitalstotrackequipment--andpotentiallyemployees--withinameterorbetter.

VAhasreferredtoplanstotrackemployeeWi-FitagswiththesysteminanoticeinSeptemberandabriefinginNovember,althoughthedepartmentsaidMondayitdidnothaveanofficialplaninplacetotagandtrackemployees.

Trackingequipmentwillhelpsolveoneofitsmostvexingproblems--lackofsterilizationofmedicalequipment,VAChiefInformationOfficerRogerBakersaidinamediacalllastmonth.

InJune2009,thedepartment'sinspectorgeneralreportedthatVAhospitalsinGeorgiaandFloridafailedtoproperlysterilizeendoscopesusedforcolonoscopiesbeforereuse,potentiallyexposingthousandsofveteranstoHIVandotherinfections.BakersaidRTLStagsonmedicalequipmentwouldensuretheywouldnotbeusedbeforetheyweresterilized.

VA,ina"sourcessought"noticereleasedtoindustryinSeptember,saidRTLSequipmentwillinterfacewithcleaningandsterilizationequipmentforstrictadherencetocleaningstandards.

BakersaidheviewedRTLSasatechnologythatcouldsupport"atleast15businesscases"inVA,includingtrackingofequipmentsuchascomputers.TheSeptembernoticetoindustrysaidthesystemcouldfollowveterancasefilefoldersusedbyexaminersintheVeteransBenefitsAdministrationandtracktheremainsofsoldiersfortheNationalCemeteryAdministration.

VAalsosaidintheSeptembernoticeitwantedtotapRTLSto"locatestaffinrealtime"through2-inchwideWi-Fitagsontheirbadgesinthe152hospitalsrunbytheVeteransHealthAdministration.

ThedepartmentalsobriefeditsstafftrackingplanstopotentialbiddersonNov.8.Stafftrackinginformation--aswellasalltheotherinformationgatheredbythesystem--wouldbestoredinaNationalDataRepositoryaccessibleatthelocal,regionalornationallevels.

VAsaidstafftrackingbyRTLSwillhelpimprovehospitalworkflowandefficiencyandthiswillbedonewiththe"explicitknowledge"ofemployees.Thedepartmentaddedthatdatacollectedfromthesystemwillnotbeusedforemployeeperformanceassessmentordisciplinarypurposes,and"willhavethesupportofVHAlaborunionpartners."

That'snewstothreeofthefourunionsrepresentingroughly250,000VHAemployees.

SusanAnderson,presidentofNationalAssociationofGovernmentEmployeeslocalattheMartinsburg,W.Va.,VeteransAffairshospital,andamemberofthelabor-managementVANationalPartnershipCouncil,saidshereceivedabriefingfromthedepartmentinJulyaboutRTLSandwasassureditwouldbeusedtotrackequipmentonly,notemployees.

AndersonsaidVAdidnotfurnishherwiththeinformationcontainedinitsindustrybriefingsorprocurementdocuments.

ElaineGerace,vicepresidentoftheServiceEmployeesInternationallocalfortheVAhospitalinSyracuse,N.Y.--andanothermemberoftheNationalPartnershipCouncil--saidthelastRTLSbriefingshehadfromVAwasayearago,andthedepartmentsaidthetechnologywouldbeusedtotrackequipmentonly.

OscarWilliamsJr.,secondexecutivevicepresidentfortheAmericanFederationofGovernmentEmployeesNationalVACouncil,alsohadtheimpressionthatthedepartmentplannedtouseRTLStoonlytrackequipment,andifVAwantstouseittoelectronicallymonitoremployeesthen"we'renotgoingtoletithappen."AFGE,Williamssaid,represents207,000VAemployees.

GeraceviewsanyplansbyVAtouseRTLStotrackemployeesas"thebeginningofBigBrother...aninvasionofprivacy."

Andersoncalledthe$550millionpricetagforRTLS"astaggeringamountofmoneythatcouldbeusedtocareforvets."

Shealsoisconcernedabouttheprivacyimplications."Ireallydon'twantanyonetotrackhowlongIspendinthebathroom,"Andersonsaid.

JosephineSchuda,aVAspokesman,saidMondaythatasofnowtherewasnoofficialplanforstafftaggingwithRTLS.Shesaidthenewcontractwill"buytechnologythatwillallowawiderangeofcapabilitiesforuseoverfiveyears."BeforeVAasksavendortodevelopaparticularapplication,therewouldbediscussionswiththeunions,Schudasaid.


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