Don't Limit Yourself

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Software and Computer Inventory Control Systems

By Jan Pingel

Select a system which can be used with instruments and equipment from various manufacturers.

In an ever-changing economy with resources becoming more and more limited, hospitals are evaluating and reviewing systems and procedures in an effort to contain costs and streamline processes. One idea that is taking the market by storm is the use of special software and inventory control programs to track instrumentation and mobile equipment. While many of the concepts of these systems are similar--not all are created equal.

An instrument tracking system should lay the foundation for all the activities in the central processing/central supply department of a hospital. It should be able to document every process in the department, providing staff with tracking and documentation capabilities to create an efficient and cost-effective department. The best systems should manage inventory, streamline processes, improve quality, and also be used as a decision support system for managers of the central supply and operating room.

Don't Limit Yourself

Caution should be taken when choosing an instrument tracking system. Some systems tend to be specialized to fit the vendor's instruments, mobile equipment, or processing equipment. Keep your options open. While you may be using a particular vendor exclusively now, you may not be in the future. You should select a system which can be used with instruments and equipment from various manufacturers. The system selected should also have the capability of connecting to any vendor's equipment or at least have the ability to log data from that equipment. Because many hospitals process instrumentation and mobile equipment in the same area, the system should be able to document the process for both of these types of goods.

Ease of Use

A computerized instrument tracking system can be intimidating to the staff in the central supply department. Typically, only administrators and supervisors use the computers in central supply. With a tracking system, everybody has to be able to use the system. The easier a system is to use--the better for all. Simple tasks such as logging onto the system and viewing pictures can become complicated tasks for users who lack computer knowledge. Technologies like barcode scanners, touch screens, and voice controls make instrument-tracking systems easier to use. A system where the user is not confronted with a computer/PC interface will be the easiest to use.

Instrument Pictures and Procedures

Tracking systems can have a dual purpose since they can also be used as a training tool for new employees and as a reinforcement tool for the current employees. The pictures show the correct instruments, sets, or equipment that is being handled or packed. Many hospitals use several pictures at various angles to help identify correctly the items in the set. The system chosen should also store procedure descriptions to help the users process the items so they are readily accessible. Ultimately, the system should be able to hold all of the departmental procedures and be used as a training and quality assurance system.

Connection to Sterilizers

A major part of compliance in central supply is the maintenance of sterilization records to include information on sterilizer loads, biological indicators, and sterilizer performance. Some tracking systems will allow a user to document cycles, the content of the load, and the processing of the biological indicator. However, most systems do not record the actual sterilizer performance. The sterilizer strip or sterilizer chart still has to be saved for complete documentation for most systems. Normally, only the sterilizer manufacturers offer some kind of system that will electronically document the actual sterilizer performance and tie that documentation to the sterilizer load documentation.

There is no standard on how instrument-tracking systems connect to sterilizers. However, this connection allows the user to have a truly paperless systems-instrument tracking system. All the information that is needed and required by regulatory is stored within the system and is easily retrievable. Both sterilization and instrument/equipment data can be archived on a CD and retrieved easily when needed. All of the processing information for an entire year could be archived on one CD, eliminating enormous amounts of paperwork and filing.

Tracking in the OR

An instrument tracking system can also have a major impact on the Operating Room. Therefore, when selecting a system, select one that can be used in both the CS and the OR. Because these two departments work so closely together, they will both benefit from the change a tracking and documentation system provides. Overall, the system you select should have the capability to connect directly to the OR scheduling system and communicate data back and forth between the OR and the CS. With such a connection, specific goods can be tracked to actual patients for billing purposes or instrument recall.

The OR can also realize other benefits from a tracking system. Some tracking systems provide the user with instrument preventive maintenance reminders when instruments need to be sharpened or serviced. By using these reminders, the OR is guaranteed to receive sharp and well-maintained instruments, providing better quality of care and oftentimes extending instrument life. Furthermore, well-maintained instruments do not need to be replaced as often, saving both departments time and money.

Using the Tracking System within the Hospital System

In today's healthcare environment, it is common for hospitals to work interdepartmentally as well as within their network or hospital affiliation, sharing information and equipment. Thus, the tracking and documentation system selected needs to provide sufficient flexibility, as well as scalability, to connect various sites. The system should also be a part of the total hospital information system. It is also important that their system is Health Level 7 compliant. Health Level 7 is an organization that works to standardize the computing environment in the healthcare field. This is beneficial when connecting to systems in Materials Management, OR Scheduling, Patient Census, Patient Billing, and other related areas.


Benefits are often realized quickly with tracking systems and range from time and cost saving to accurate reports and quality assurance. Realizing the time that is saved each day by these systems becomes an easy task. Add up the time it takes to search for a set or check sterilization records and the minutes easily become hours. Now, since you have the location of every set or the sterilization records at your fingertips, that time is reduced significantly.

Cost savings can be seen with a decline in instrument replacement and mobile equipment rentals. Other areas that benefit include better staff appropriation and instrument loss and/or theft. And when it comes time to reorder instruments, you will have information based upon actual usage, therefore, gaining leverage on contract negotiations.

Another major benefit to both CS and OR management is report generation. Reports are normally standard with tracking systems and can be generated on almost any subject from employee productivity to sterilization cycles. The best systems on the market use report writers that allow for a wider range of customizable reports. Many of these systems increase quality assurance for the hospital. With scheduled reminders, sets are well maintained and instruments are sharp and ready for use. The best system on the market will not allow goods to be sterilized unless certain criteria are met or dispatched to the OR when they have not been sterilized.


When deciding on an instrument tracking system, a key element to consider should be service. When switching from a manual system to an automated processing system, all processes and documentation rely on the automated system to function. If the system goes down, tracking documentation cannot be obtained, goods cannot be returned, the sterilizer documentation is not saved, etc. It is important that the supplier of the system be available to get it back up and running as soon as possible to maximize uptime. Service offered might even be in the form of remote support, allowing the service organization to access the system remotely. If remote support is available, the time from service call to identifying the problem is almost instant.

Another important aspect of service to consider is spare parts. If a computer breaks down, it should be easy to replace with a spare or temporarily move an existing computer in its place. All critical parts of the system such as connection to sterilizers, special label printers, and scanners should have at minimum of two spares on hand. Non-critical hardware such as laser printers, keyboards, and monitors are typically found within the hospital and can be easy to replace.

In case a critical problem that cannot be fixed immediately or remotely arises, a contingency/backup plan is a necessity. If, for example, the server breaks down or the network is inoperable, pre-printed labels should be available to identify packs normally receiving freshly printed barcodes. A logbook where all the processed units are registered and tracked should also be available to maintain records of sterilized goods. This information can be added into the system after it is repaired, so no documentation is lost.

The last and very important part of service is the vendor's service organization. The customer should review the size and location of the service organization. Service call response time is equally important with the actual time needed prior to the on-site visit. Many vendors of tracking systems rely on the sales organization or local distributor to resolve problems on-site. Equipment manufacturers typically have local service representatives who can respond to a service call within hours.

Overall, it is important to choose a system that meets all of your needs--whether it is instrumentation and equipment tracking to sterilization documentation and quality assurance. The system purchased will be at the facility for many years to come, and it needs to be adaptable to a changing environment.

Jan Pingel is now the Senior Market Manager, Integrated Processing Systems for Lunatronic at Getinge/Castle, Inc. (Rochester, NY) where he promotes the T-DOC system for tracking, quality assurance, and asset management for sterile goods in hospitals across the US and Canada. For more information about T-DOC, visit

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