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Business trends

Smart labels could help Japan's money-losing hospitals lift productivity

Device suppliers Ship Healthcare and Teijin developing ways to manage inventory, slash wait times

Smart labels embedded with IC chips can help hospital track supplies and patient records.

TOKYO -- Japanese medical device suppliers are putting smart labels --  a technology widely used to track merchandise in the retail industry -- to work at hospitals in hopes of making health care more efficient for providers and patients alike.

Ship Healthcare Holdings and has begun testing an inventory management system at a hospital in northern Japan's Iwate Prefecture. The system tracks which medical equipment has been used on which patient and how much remains in stock by attaching labels embedded with integrated circuits (ICs) to each item. Once inventories of catheters or other supplies fall below a certain level, orders for new products are placed automatically.

The company aims to improve the system this the year, so it can automatically record what equipment has been used on patients in their medical charts. It hopes to introduce the system to 100 hospitals by fiscal 2019. Inventories at multiple neighboring hospitals could be managed as a whole in order to boost efficiency.

Meanwhile, Teijin, a materials supplier that also makes medical devices, is testing a system at a Tokyo hospital to better track patients waiting for health consultations. Smart labels are attached to medical questionnaires in order to efficiently assign patients to the services they need, like X-rays and hearing tests. The system cuts down on waiting time and allows each doctor to see more patients. The goal is to have a full-fledged version ready in the next two to three years.

Roughly 70% of Japan's hospitals operated at a loss in 2016, according to a national alliance of public and private hospitals. Many institutions hope to improve their performance by reducing inventories and streamlining patient consultations.

Smart labels or IC tags are used mainly by clothing stores and other retailers to manage merchandise. Those used in hospitals need a special design so that radio waves do not interfere with medical equipment, and they must be able to be introduced into sterile environments.

(Nikkei)

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