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Coronavirus: Automated Contact Tracing in Hospitals Called 'Game Changer'

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   February 22, 2021

A new automated contact tracing system precisely tracks healthcare workers' movements in hospitals.

In the hospital setting, automated contact tracing is far superior to manual contact tracing, a California-based hospital's chief medical officer says.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the healthcare workforce has been strained by coronavirus infections and workers sent home to quarantine after unsafe exposures to infected patients and colleagues. There have been more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19 among healthcare workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Methodist Hospital of Southern California adopted automated contact tracing in November. "With automated contact tracing, which we do with SwipeSense, we can get contact tracing information in about five minutes. It is a total game changer," says Bala Chandrasekhar, MD, CMO of the Arcadia, California facility.

Before the hospital started using automated contact tracing, the manual process took about two weeks and imprecision often resulted in healthcare workers being sent home for testing and isolation unnecessarily, he says.

The manual process had been administered by the hospital's Occupational Health Department. "The problem with the manual process is that it is very time consuming. I had one doctor come to me at the beginning of the pandemic who said, 'I just got contacted from occupational health that I had an exposure two weeks ago. What am I supposed to do?' I said, 'At two weeks, there is not much that you can do.' That was very unsatisfactory," Chandrasekhar says.

The two-week lag period in manual contact tracing could lead to the spread of coronavirus infection, he says. "A healthcare worker could be carrying the virus for a while and be asymptomatic, then expose other healthcare workers, patients, or their family."

And relying on the memory of staff members about exposures to infected patients and coworkers is imprecise, he says.

"With a manual contact tracing process, it is difficult to risk stratify. With COVID-19, the CDC says an unsafe close contact is someone who has had at least a 15-minute exposure within six feet of the infected person over a 24-hour period. The manual process cannot get you that information reliably. So, you might unnecessarily call people and tell them they have been exposed. If it is a healthcare worker, they are out of work in quarantine or isolation. That is a problem because we need healthcare workers during the pandemic—we cannot send a bunch of people home unnecessarily. It creates more of a crisis."

How automated contract tracing works

The SwipeSense technology uses badges to collect data on the movements of healthcare workers in the hospital, Chandrasekhar says.

"It is a radio frequency tag that you wear with your ID tag. The badge tracks where you have gone in the hospital; so, when it comes to contact tracing, we can easily figure it out in a very short period of time. Although data is collected continuously, contact tracing only gets turned on when there has been an unsafe exposure to an infectious disease. So, we are not actively tracking everybody all the time."

The automated contact tracing technology can tell whether a healthcare worker has had an unsafe exposure according to the CDC guidelines, he says. "We have complete information about everybody who has been in contact with an infected person, and we can risk stratify. Anybody who has had only casual contact with an infected patient or healthcare worker does not need to be notified or go into quarantine."

So far, Methodist Hospital of Southern California has used automated contact tracing for 41 patients and 114 healthcare workers.

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


At Methodist Hospital of Southern California, manual contact tracing takes about two weeks.

With the hospital's new automated contact tracing system, the process takes about five minutes.

Manual contact tracing not only takes more time but also is less precise, leading to some healthcare workers being sent home unnecessarily.

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