The ‘pneu’ in pneumatic tube systems

June 1, 2011

On any given day in almost any average-size hospital lab receiving area, there is a constant “swoosh” of pneumatic tube system carriers as they arrive at the station packed with specimens, tissues, or samples that require immediate testing. Pneumatic tube systems are a mainstay technology in hospitals because of the proven value they deliver to the lab, blood bank, and pharmacy departments. The justification for these systems includes rapid turnaround time, improved staff productivity, and an outstanding return-on-investment which is typically 18 months or less.

While these are important justifications for selecting a pneumatic tube system, the laboratory has other specific requirements. These systems also need to address security, delivery verification, and specimen integrity. Additionally, busy lab and blood-bank personnel want system controls that are easy to use, and carriers that are easy to open and close.

A variety of technologies are now available that address these lab-specific requests of pneumatic tube system users. For example, pneumatic tube systems can be equipped with variable speed technology that will slow the speed of carrier transport for sensitive items that require gentle handling and soft delivery. This may eliminate the need for these special items to be delivered manually. When sending empty carriers, the same variable speed technology can be used to increase the speed of transport for improved system performance.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) aids in tracking carriers through a system from departure to arrival. Not only useful for tracking carriers from within the system, RFID is used to automatically separate “clean” carriers — those used for sending medications or paperwork — from “dirty” carriers that are used for sending blood and specimens. In other words, carriers can be restricted by department or use. RFID can also automatically adjust carrier counts in the system to ensure the proper number of carriers is accounted for at each station. RFID automatically reads the carrier as it passes through the system; no user action is required. For busy lab and blood bank personnel, this is an advantage.

Ease of use is critical for pneumatic tube system users who simply do not have the time to manage multiple steps to get the job done. Recognizing this need, pneumatic tube system manufacturers have begun introducing touch-screen control panels that can be retrofitted to existing system stations. Touch-screen control panels not only give pneumatic tube systems a modern easy-to-use face-lift, but special functions like secure send and STAT send are pre-programmed for fast, easy access. Unlike traditional control panels, touch-screen displays are more intuitive and have greater utility than conventional screens. These displays are also easier to read at a distance to indicate status of a transaction and reduce mistakes when users send carriers.

The integration of card-swipe technology further improves the user experience by eliminating the need for a secure code.

In recent years, due to HIPAA and other regulatory actions, hospitals have focused on pneumatic tube system security features. As a result, several new technologies have been introduced that provide a chain-of-custody solution. Pneumatic tube system stations can now be equipped with RFID, security card readers, and software that is designed to provide closed-loop control with tracking of senders, receivers, and transactions.

Securing system transactions is in no way new. For years, pneumatic tube system control panels have been equipped with a secure-send feature which limits access of specific carriers to authorized users. These functions typically require the entry of a secure code when sending the transaction. Then, by communicating that security code to the receiver, the arriving transaction is unlocked and delivered to the recipient. The integration of card-swipe technology further improves the user experience by eliminating the need for a secure code.

Card-swipe technology enables the system to identify the senders and receivers of a specific transaction and controls access to systems’ special features. Transactions can be initiated and received with the simple swipe of a building-access card. For example, Rose Medical Center in Denver, CO, is using a card-swipe solution with its tube system. This technology ensures that only authorized users operate the system, and records the sender and receiver of transactions.

Advanced messaging technology provides the final piece of the chain-of-custody solution, enabling hospital personnel to receive communications via mobile devices such as pagers, PDAs (personal digital assistant), mobile phones, or e-mail. If a lab technician is waiting for a STAT transaction, for example, he can be notified of when the carrier has left phlebotomy. The same technology can be used to communicate system failures for rapid response by the maintenance department. This technology will enable users to know more about who is transporting what and to whom, and to receive messages of importance about the tube system.

Pneumatic tube systems have evolved since first adoption by hospitals a half-century ago. Moving into the future, the requirements of important user groups, including the laboratory and blood bank, will dictate how technology is adapted to meet their specific needs. New approaches to achieve specimen integrity, soft delivery, carrier tracking, and security will enhance the benefits of these already indispensable systems.

John Kennedy
is pneumatic tube system product manager with Swisslog Healthcare Solutions in Denver, CO, where the Rose Medical Center uses the Swisslog card-swipe solution.