Singapore General Hospital's new computerised system allows tool tracking

Instrument technician assistant Lim Chai Kim, 41, registering instrument sets using a barcode scanner at SGH. Before the computerised system, things were done on paper.
Instrument technician assistant Lim Chai Kim, 41, registering instrument sets using a barcode scanner at SGH. Before the computerised system, things were done on paper.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Computerised system makes it easier to keep track of tools used in surgery

THE Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) theatre sterile supplies unit used to be filled with stacks of paper.

It was the only way for staff to keep track of the thousands of surgical instruments sent there daily to be washed, packed and sterilised.

But after a four-year overhaul, barcodes have taken the place of paper.

The new system is fully computerised and so precise that it can alert users when a pair of scissors needs sharpening.

This may not sound like much, said deputy director of nursing Goh Meh Meh, but a pair of blunt scissors may shear off tissue in the operating theatre and injure the patient.

"Previously, it all depended on the person's experience," she said. "Everything was done manually."

All supplies from the hospital's 38 operating rooms - down to the smallest pair of tweezers - pass through the doors of this underground laundry.

The unit, which works round the clock, also sterilises instruments for the specialist centres on the SGH campus, such as the National Cancer Centre Singapore.

Its 65 staff are responsible for 3,500 different types of surgical supplies, and handle up to 28,000 instrument sets a month.

In one such set - for knee replacement surgery, for example - there can be an average of 20 to 30 individual instruments.

Technician Lai Kah Mun, 26, who joined the department when it was switching over to the new system, recalled how tedious things were.

"The previous system was very taxing," he said. "Everything had to be noted down and it was very time-consuming."

As part of the revamp, the department also made changes to ensure that work processes were more elder-friendly to accommodate its senior workers.

For instance, the weight of instrument sets was capped at 10kg to make it easier for older staff to load them onto trolleys.

A custom-built motorised trolley that can carry up to 200kg of surgical instruments also replaced the old trolley that took two people to steer.

"The new one is easier to push," said 72-year-old senior enrolled nurse Loke Lye Chan, who has been with SGH for more than 50 years. "With the old one, it was slower and harder to control."

About 40 per cent of the department's staff are above 50, said Ms Goh.

"Some of them have only Primary 6 qualifications or below, so we use colour coding to help them out," she added.

She hopes to get the operating theatre schedule fully integrated with the computer system that the sterile supplies unit uses.

"Now, the operating theatre teams still need to request what they need," Ms Goh said. "If we can do that, they won't even need to send in their orders."

linettel@sph.com.sg