According to Capsite's survey of 422 healthcare organizations, 41% of the respondents use patient flow software. That includes 32% of hospitals with under 200 beds, 53% of facilities with 200-400 beds and 82% of institutions with more than 400 beds.
Moreover, the trend seems to be picking up steam. Nearly as many respondents purchased patient flow systems in the first half of this year as in all of 2011.
Doug Hires, executive VP of Santa Rosa Consulting, attributes the acceleration in purchases to the spread of the technology from early adopters to late adopters, most of them smaller community hospitals. "The large integrated health systems have been looking at this and helping vendors mature their solutions, and now we're starting to get into that bigger adoption curve," he told InformationWeek Healthcare.
Around 40% of the new purchases were upgrades or replacements of older systems. Whether the patient flow applications are embedded in large hospital information systems or are specialty products that interface with those systems, Hires explained, the systems are continuing to improve. "The products will continue to be integrated better and provide more functionality and usability."
Nearly 60% of the patient flow applications used by respondents were features of leading hospital information systems (HIS), and the rest came from a variety of other vendors. Four of the top five companies under consideration by hospitals planning to buy patient flow systems are major HIS vendors: Epic, McKesson, Cerner and Allscripts. The fifth, Teletracking, is the top specialty vendor of patient flow tools.
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That conclusion fits with Capsite's finding that 20% of hospitals bought new patient flow systems to improve their technology. Sixteen percent of respondents said the patient flow software was included with an HIS or electronic health records (EHR) system purchase, and the same percentage expected the application would help improve the quality of care. The largest percentage of respondents, 38%, said they'd bought a patient flow application to improve efficiency, in part by reducing patient wait time and bed turnaround time.
"Hospitals see a tremendous opportunity to improve their performance through operational tools, and this can improve the efficiency of moving patients through the entire system," Hires commented. "They can reduce cost and improve the utilization of current capacity without having to constantly build towers and add beds. Ultimately, they also can improve patient satisfaction and engagement."
Besides improving throughput and reducing wait times, he noted, the patient flow software can ensure that doctors can quickly locate patients in the hospital. In addition, he said, some applications track equipment within the hospital.
The equipment finders, known as real-time location systems (RTLS), include products that use barcode scanners and others that rely on radio frequency identification (RFID). They may be standalone or part of patient flow tools.
But when it comes to patients, Hires noted, "The majority of EHR vendors use a basic patient flow component that involves entering data rather than RFID surveillance technology."
Patient flow software can be used in emergency departments (ED) as well as the overall hospital. "It's very useful in both those areas and the transition between them," Hires noted. "A lot of ED software tracks patients in the ED directly, so you have to integrate it into an enterprise solution."
That isn't always easy, however, if the ED EHR is from a different vendor than the hospital EHR. "The performance improvement opportunity that healthcare executives see is in treating patient flow as an enterprise problem. Once they focus on that and on all the workflows involved and apply technology to it, that's where the real benefits are."
So will the big HIS vendors take over the patient flow market? "This is the same issue you have with lots of different modules for an EHR solution: Do you buy everything bundled, and have the advantage of a single database, or do you partner with an innovative specialty vendor that will provide more functional, user friendly features? It's a classic struggle of best of breed vs. a single solution."