Blood banks perform the critical functions of collecting, testing, processing, storing, and distributing the over 10 million units of blood donated in the US every year. The tasks performed on a daily basis in a blood bank are diverse and complex.
Error-free, fast execution of these tasks is essential for saving lives, which makes blood banks excellent candidates for automation. Consider the task of temperature monitoring in blood bank storage areas. Three of the most commonly used blood products- red blood cells, plasma, and platelets- all require different storage temperatures. The AABB (American Association of Blood Banks) recommends continuous temperature monitoring, with readings collected every four hours. To meet these requirements, manual thermometer readings would be time consuming and introduce the potential for human error.
Using digital data loggers that automatically record the temperature continuously is more efficient, reduces the potential for human error, and frees up staff to work on more specialized, higher level tasks. Not to mention that a modern data logger system will also automatically generate a time-stamped record of temperatures, send out alerts if a problem is detected, provide tools for data visualization, track calibration status of the sensors, among other time-saving functions.
This type of automation is even more powerful if it is implemented through an IoT platform. As you’re probably aware, IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to a network of physical devices, like temperature data loggers, automated blood analyzers, or blood delivery robots, that communicate through the internet. This connectivity allows data from an IoT device to be accessed from anywhere, or for the device to be controlled from anywhere. IoT devices can also communicate with one another for an additional layer of automation.
In this article, we’ll talk about how automated blood bank systems, including IoT devices, have revolutionized the way that blood banks operate, and how this area may grow and develop in the future. We’ll focus on the automation of environmental monitoring in blood banks, which is a particularly important and well-developed application.
How IoT is Revolutionizing Blood Banks
Interestingly, automated blood bank systems are not a new concept. In fact, automated blood analysis tools have been around since the mid 1950’s, and blood samples have been delivered in hospitals by robots with refrigerated compartments for over 10 years.
The long history of automated blood bank systems is a clear indication of the value of this approach. More recently, the exponential increase in wireless communication technology has led to a new generation of automation, including the present-day concept of IoT.
Some of the ways that automated IoT blood bank systems have impacted blood banks include:
- Speeding up turnaround time for blood testing and screening
- Increasing productivity by standardizing workflows
- Reducing human error in routine tasks like material handling and transcription
- Freeing up blood bank staff for more specialized tasks or resolving difficult cases
- Collecting of large amounts of data, which can be used to reduce waste and better target potential donors
- Improving the donation experience
- Increasing the amount of specific blood products that can be donated
These improvements amount to a life-saving revolution in the area of blood banking, both by reducing waste, and increasing the total amount of blood products that can be donated.
Examples of Automated Blood Bank Systems
Here are a few examples of some of the automated blood bank systems in use today:
- Automated collection (apheresis). In this process, blood is continuously drawn from the donor into a centrifuge, which selectively removes one component, usually platelets or plasma. The remainder of the blood is then returned to the donor. This allows for more frequent, higher volume donations of specific blood products.
- Blood analysis/testing. A key part of the blood banking process is testing, including blood typing and screening for antibodies. Automated blood analyzers can greatly simplify this process.
These systems are highly sophisticated, and can handle labor-intensive tasks like liquid handling, centrifugation, incubation, and even reading blood test results using digital image analysis in a single unit.
Using an IoT approach, an automatic blood analyzer can be connected directly to a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). This allows remote access to test scheduling and results. For example, a physician could order a particular set of tests on a blood sample. The sample would be scanned into an automated analyzer via barcode or RFID tag, then analyzed using the selected tests, with the results directly uploaded to a cloud-based information management tool.
- Transportation. One of the most sensitive steps in the distribution of blood products is transportation from the blood bank to its point of use. Automated transportation systems in use today include robots, pneumatic tube systems, and drones. These speed up transportation, while providing reliable refrigeration and a clear chain of custody. Automated transport also helps with social distancing efforts.
- Scheduling and donor management. The systems for donation appointment scheduling, donor record-keeping, staffing, blood drives, and even non-donation outreach events can also be automated. In particular, making scheduling flexible and streamlining data entry can improve the donor experience, lowering the barrier for new and repeat donors. Cloud-based systems have even been envisioned to ‘gamify’ the donation experience.
There are also benefits to collecting and analyzing aggregated donation data. For example, this data can be used to measure progress towards donation goals, and to optimize blood drive scheduling and outreach activities.
The Role of Real Time Monitoring in Blood Banks
Monitoring the areas where blood products and samples are handled and stored is critical to avoiding waste and preventing risks to patient health. Making matters more complicated, temperature sensitivity varies between blood products. The specific requirements for storage and transportation of red blood cells, platelets, plasma, cryoprecipitated AHF, and other products are actually written into federal regulations.
There are a few ways that blood storage areas can be monitored, including manual temperature readings from a thermometer, paper chart recorders, and digital data loggers. Of these, digital data loggers provide the most automation. These are electronic, self-contained units that measure and record temperature and humidity, as well as other types of data. Modern data loggers are designed to be networked through a cloud-based platform, taking advantage of all of the features of IoT that we’ve discussed, including uploading monitoring data in real time so that it can be accessed remotely.
For temperature data loggers specifically, there are several types of sensors available, including thermocouples, RTDs (Resistance Temperature Detectors), and thermistors. All of these generate an electrical signal that is proportional to temperature which is read by the data logger. Loggers that use thermistors, materials in which the electrical resistance depends on temperature, are well suited for blood bank applications. Thermistors are often “buffered” by placing them in a vial of glycol, since the temperature of the glycol is a good representation of the actual temperature of a blood unit stored in the same area.
When everything is running smoothly, the data logger system keeps a record that blood products are continuously being held at a safe temperature. This is required by FDA regulations, and to maintain accreditation by the AABB. Audits conducted by the FDA will also verify that temperature monitoring and control systems are properly maintained, and that there are written procedures for using them.
When there is a problem, a networked data logger can both raise a local alarm, and send out a targeted alert remotely by SMS text, email, or phone, ensuring a fast response by the right personnel. Custom triggers can be set up for alarms, so the response can begin proactively, before there’s even a temperature excursion. One of the major advantages of real-time remote monitoring is that problems with refrigeration equipment can be addressed quickly.
Since automated environmental monitoring is a well-established technology, it can also be used as a starting point for a larger, more comprehensive automation program.
Future IOT Applications for Blood Banks
More widespread use of IoT devices is expected to increase the level of automation in all types of healthcare settings, including blood banks. In particular, the convergence of IoT sensors and AI is expected to be at the heart of future “smart hospitals” that take advantage of these technologies to improve patient monitoring and care, and to make the buildings themselves more efficient.
In future blood banks, the vast amount of data collected by IoT sensors like networked environmental data loggers will be processed by AI tools to provide insights on how to fine-tune operations. For staff, digital workflow tools will improve efficiency and patient care, particularly tools that are designed to take full advantage of automated systems, like automated blood analysis and handling tools.
Finally, increased wireless bandwidth and coverage, through 5G and other technologies, will further increase connectivity within the blood bank, and to donors and healthcare providers.
Automated blood bank systems have the potential to reduce waste, improve turnaround time, and free up staff to focus on more specialized or urgent tasks. The automation provided by IoT devices has been revolutionary for blood banks, and is expected to continue in the future. A key example of this is automated data logging in the critical areas where blood products are stored and handled.
Questions about using IoT devices for environmental monitoring? Contact the experts at Dickson.