Next gen in traffic control

By Michael Donoghue

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Tower to ICU. "Is that an empty bed I see?"

If I were to have visited the first airway traffic control center in Newark, NJ in 1935, I may have seen the air traffic controllers tracking the position of planes using maps and blackboards with little boat shaped weights. They had no direct radio link to aircraft so they relied on telephones to communicate with airline dispatchers, airway radio operators and airport traffic controllers.

When I tour through a hospital today and walk by the control desk in the operating room or into bed control office, the introduction to the staff member most often includes the phrase "And this is our air traffic controller". A computer monitor may replace the map, a whiteboard and magnets may replace the blackboard and weights but the shrill of the telephone within seconds of arrival and the stress in the room is probably a lot like the control center in Newark 75 years ago. The primary purpose of the Air Traffic Control System is to separate aircraft to prevent collisions, to organize and expedite the flow of traffic and to provide information and other support to pilots when able*.  The more I think about that description, the more appropriate the introduction seems.

Safely managing the flow of more than 30,000 flights per day through various airports, with varying flight crews in all types of weather requires complex systems and processes and a great deal of technology. Similarly, safely managing the flow of hundreds of patients with varying disease states and arrival patterns with fixed resources requires sophisticated scheduling, streamlined processes and often multiple systems and interfaces. Advances in Real Time Location System (RTLS) technologies enable the safer more efficient flow of patients through the health system.

Effectively managing patient flow involves:
  • Smoothing elective demand and aligning discharges to lead admissions. (Separate aircraft to prevent collisions)
  • Understand care plans and expedite activities on the critical path. (Organize and expedite the flow of traffic)
  • Provide real time information for decision support (provide information and other support to pilots)
RTLS enabled technology can help efficiently direct patients like Air Traffic Control guides aircraft. Tags can be attached to wristbands so that the RTLS system knows the precise location of patients from their entry into a facility until discharge. The magic of air traffic control is not in simply knowing where an airplane is at any given time but in it's ability to know where it is going and preventing a potential collision. In patient flow, a collision occurs when a bed request is made without an available, clean bed to fill that request. Patient discharge scheduling function tracks pending discharges and creates patient specific discharge checklists with alerts when the plan is off course. Once a patient physically leaves a room, workflow functionality can automate bed turnover processes and automatically monitors and fills requests for beds. Just as pilots receive real time information from air traffic controllers, RTLS products provide decision makers with real time information to alter flight plans when weather conditions deteriorate.

The future of air traffic control will continue to make air travel safer and more efficient. RTLS products, by leveraging clinical workflow information provide real time data, sophisticated simulation models, and truly dynamic capacity management to help hospitals safely operate at higher utilization levels.
Roger tower. ICU bed is clear for incoming patient.

* FAA 7110.65 2-1-1

Comments (2)

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  • Bill McAuliffe April 2, 2010 7:55 AM

    I have been monitoring fire calls, though volume is much lower a lot of the same concepts are applicable.

  • Michael Donoghue April 7, 2010 2:00 PM

    Thanks for the message Bill. You are right. These principles are applicable to many industries. It is interesting that Healthcare has been so slow to adopt some of the basic operations management principles. But I know we can get there.