Hospitals deploy Internet of Things systems to track wheelchairs, patient location

SINGAPORE – For the past 12 years, Mr Sockalingam Ramalingam would comb the campus of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) on foot two to three times a day, with each trip taking up to half an hour.

The 63-year-old senior patient greeter would check basement carparks, specialist clinics, wards and other common areas across the hospital’s three tower blocks, each with six storeys, to retrieve unused wheelchairs and bring them back to the hospital’s main lobby and other areas where patients might need them.

Now, instead of relying on his instincts and guessing which area might have an excess of wheelchairs, Mr Sockalingam can consult a dashboard on his mobile phone which tells him exactly where to look, cutting the time needed for this critical task in half.

In April last year, KTPH began a pilot scheme to tag 150 wheelchairs with long-range radio frequency beacons which help staff locate and retrieve them more easily. Today, 300 of the hospital’s 371 wheelchairs have been tagged under the smart tracking system.

The system uses a network of routers placed at known locations throughout the hospital to report the number of wheelchairs in various areas, including how many are in a specific room or on a certain floor.

A beacon can be detected when the wheelchair is within 30m of the nearest router.

A Web app which can be accessed on mobile devices notifies hospital staff when designated areas are running short and where to find excess wheelchairs.

Staff can thus ensure a supply of available wheelchairs for patients who need them.

Mr Sockalingam said the new system has saved him effort and time, which he can now spend with patients. It has also relieved a significant source of stress for his team of 10 patient greeters, especially during the hospital’s peak hours on weekdays.

“As a front-line worker interacting with patients, I cannot simply tell them, sorry, there are not enough wheelchairs. I have to face the problem,” Mr Sockalingam said of his role.

Ms Yen Tan, chief operating officer of KTPH, said a large majority of the hospital’s patients require wheelchairs to move around the premises.

She said the hospital recognised that the issue of ensuring sufficient availability of wheelchairs was a gap in its service quality. So it tapped a fund administered by the enterprise division of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) to support the commercialisation of new technologies.

A*Star and local start-up IOT Workz developed a low-power wireless mesh network for the project, based on the Zigbee standard.

IOT Workz chief executive Shawn Koh said the Zigbee technology, which can also be found in many smart home Internet of Things (IoT) devices, is cheaper and simpler to deploy than similar tracking systems that use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

This is because the system does not require every device to be connected to the Internet or the organisation’s Intranet, and therefore does not require additional infrastructure such as Wi-Fi access points to be installed.

Each Zigbee beacon and router acts like a link in a chain, carrying the data back to a main hub that updates the dashboard in the Web app.