The Hospital Is Watching You

14 Nov The Hospital Is Watching You

Wall Street Journal, By Laura Landro, November 12, 2008

The next time you’re in a hospital, they may be watching you. Hospitals are increasingly relying on electronic tracking systems to keep tabs on equipment and lab specimens, and even to monitor the location of patients and staff. But the heightened surveillance is raising some safety and privacy concerns. Automatic-tracking software programs were introduced more than a decade ago to help hospitals prevent infant abductions. Now, institutions are putting electronic tags on all sorts of things, from EKG monitors and ventilators so they can readily be located in an emergency, to surgical sponges so they don’t get sewn up inside a patient. Some hospitals have begun tagging arriving patients to help cut waiting times in emergency rooms. Some have also begun tracking employees to help supervisors move them to understaffed areas. The growing use of tracking technology has privacy experts warning that hospitals must take steps to protect any personal data from being inadvertently released. And requiring health-care workers to wear tags raises questions about putting staffers under undue surveillance. Also, a study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that systems using high-frequency radio waves, the most powerful of the tracking systems, could interfere with the functioning of medical devices. The signals could stop a hospital pump from operating, switch off a ventilator or interfere with a pacemaker, the researchers warned.