A nursing shortage is resulting in skill gaps in certain pockets of the country. Hospitals and health systems in these nurse-poor markets often struggle with patient care, finding they're susceptible to more patient falls and other issues. Increasingly, they're turning to technology to fill the gap.
One of the most important things nurses can do is to monitor patients, but with some areas experiencing a shortage of between 25 and 30 percent, according to some estimates, it can be a challenge to staff enough skilled professionals to keep an eye on patients.
That's where thermal cameras come in. If human eyes can't watch a patient, digital eyes can often be the next best thing.
Paul Baratta, business development manager for healthcare at Axis Communications, sees the nursing shortage as a particular problem at smaller community hospitals. But there's also a gap in long-term care that needs to be considered.
"Long-term care is also growing, and there's a need for nursing for long-term care," said Baratta. "So there's a constant battle between the two of them. And with states trying to impose nursing quotas, and nurse/patient ratios, there's been a real problem in getting qualified nurses in the hospitals."
Finding qualified nurses can be a challenge for many institutions, partly because it's a demanding job by its nature. According to Baratta, there's an additional issue keeping nurses at bay: A rise in workplace violence.
While assaults are going down at a national level, they're rising in healthcare environments, said Baratta -- and at a higher rate than the staffing of law enforcement and correctional officers. In part, that's due to more hospitals and health systems taking on patients who would otherwise be in a behavioral health setting.
Considering all of those factors, clearly something needs to be done.
With fewer nurses on the floor at any given time, more hospitals are relying on thermal cameras to monitor patients and prevent costly incidents like falls.
"You can still observe a patient in low-light situations, even late at night, and observe the patient but also keep their privacy if need be, because it's a thermal image," Baratta said.
There are a couple of ways to integrate thermal imaging into a hospital's camera systems. The technology can be adapted to regular dome cameras, and administrators can also add privacy lights to the cameras so the patient knows when the camera is on. There are also ways to switch from a thermal image to a pixel image if an incident occurs that requires seeing any extra detail.
"There's a need to make sure somebody's in their bed and that they're safe," Baratta said. "A hospital fall can cost a hospital, depending on the injury, up to $30,000, which is not reimbursable through Medicare or Medicaid. If a patient falls, it would be thousands of dollars the hospital is not going to be reimbursed for."
Detection is the best prevention in that scenario, and with fewer nurses, cameras help fill the gap. Stopping falls altogether is likely a futile endeavor, but caregivers on the hospital floor can respond to patients trying to get out of bed more easily by using a geo-fence around the bed.
Using analytics, nurses get alerted if a patient attempts to rise from their bed, and the analytics can be implemented directly into the camera -- allowing staff to be proactive rather than reactive.
High-sensitivity devices that can produce good-quality video can also be utilized in dark spaces such as radiology theaters, and can also be used to assist in bloodwork. There are lot of regulations governing those areas due to the amount of radiation involved, so video acts as one of the quality controls.
Baratta has followed the health systems that have implemented the technology and has noticed increased efficiency and workflow among the nursing staff. There has also been a statistically significant decrease in falls, with one health system in particular seeing a 60 percent decrease over a year-long period.
Data from such cameras can also be integrated into an electronic health system. A children's hospital that uses thermal cameras was able to tie patients' health information into Epic, and others have taken things to the next level, setting up monitoring centers staffed by nurses and EMTs.
When the alarm sounds, staff can turn on a camera, look into a room, and send images or information to a rounding nurse so they can make decisions about the next steps in the patient's care.
Baratta said he's seen an increase in people who are interested in the technology, and expects the use of thermal cameras to become more widespread with time.
"I really believe it will be the norm," he said.