The Everyday Heroes of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Upgrading the pneumatic tube technology of the premier cancer center in the nation is no small feat. Fortunately, Steve Suter and the facilities teams at MD Anderson Cancer Center have the power to make it happen.

“Sneaker power” is how Steve Suter describes the original method of moving samples, blood, and medicine around a hospital. That concept was eventually replaced by “the train,” which was a set of carts that carried items back and forth on one established track. These days, many hospitals use a system of pneumatic tubes that send carriers throughout a sprawling hospital campus. These carriers can reach up to 17 miles an hour.

As the director of operations and maintenance of the patient care facilities, Suter affectionately describes the pneumatic tubing system at MD Anderson Cancer Center as a “highly sophisticated bowl of spaghetti noodles” that are each six inches in diameter. They run throughout the core areas of the main hospital and out to compounding pharmacies, the blood bank, and even across a main street in Houston to an outpatient clinic roughly a half mile away.

All told, more than 27 miles of tubing (one of the largest systems in the country) are used between 5,000 and 7,000 times on a typical week day, connecting about 160 tube stations across the MD Anderson operation.

MD Anderson Cancer Center exists to eradicate cancer worldwide. Every patient who visits the center is a cancer patient, and each of the center’s nearly 20,000 employees are dedicated to researching, treating, and curing the disease. Between traditional patients, those participating in medical trials, and those interested in alternative medicines, the hospital operates about 150 outpatient beds and 650 inpatient beds. It also plans to add about 150 more in the next few years.

Each of these beds is equipped with dozens of mechanical functions, and Suter and his team are responsible for maintaining them all. The operations and maintenance team is also responsible for taking care of heating and cooling, lighting, maintenance of aesthetics, and infrastructure such as plumbing and special systems throughout the hospital. Day-to-day operations include repairs in buildings that can range up to 50 years old, and Suter and his team of 75 specialized technicians work around the clock to keep the lights on and temperature comfortable in every patient room, surgical suite, radiology suite, and lab at MD Anderson.

But beyond the daily work required to keep everything running smoothly at the hospital, Suter has a goal to constantly improve MD Anderson’s operations through innovation, upgrades, and cross-team collaboration. One such upgrade on the horizon will require seamless coordination between ITS division, project management, and operations and maintenance to successfully complete updating the computing system of the hospital’s massive pneumatic tubing system.

“The upgrade will allow us to watch the system from a mobile device, which will increase our staff efficiency and be a much better use of time for technicians.”

The system is currently operated by two computers that are not connected to the Internet or the hospital’s intranet or cloud. High-traffic locations (between surgery and the blood bank, for example) house several carrier stations where staff can ship items using a transfer system. This means a carrier can take many different routes to the same end, allowing for constant circulation.

However, electronically tracking and documenting information about those carriers is a limited function of the current system. On top of that, carriers occasionally get stuck if they have been overloaded beyond weight capacity, and finding them within the system can be quite the challenge. These variables require a technician to sit at a stationary computer at all times to monitor the system for alarms.

“The upgrade will allow us to watch the system from a mobile device,” Suter explains, adding that instead of needing one technician sitting in front of the computer to talk to another in the field, one person will be able to take care of a problem in the tubes alone. “It will increase our staff efficiency and be a much better use of time for technicians,” he says.

Improvements will also allow for better control of the chain of custody of each item, providing specific information about who sent each item at what time and where it is intended to go. “If you have a one-time sample of something, you need to know that it was safely delivered in a timely manner,” Suter says. “This upgrade will allow for that and will work well with our electronic medical records system.”

Because the tubing itself is in good condition, the project will primarily involve converting all twisted pair lines to Ethernet cables, which will improve speed, accuracy, and volume of information. That wiring will need to be upgraded in the ceiling and walls throughout the campus, which Suter’s team is already doing in preparation for the switch. They are also preparing to upgrade about 100 control panels at each station to touch screens with more detailed instructions.

“This smart upgrade will decrease the possibility of user error,” Suter says.

Suter anticipates that the project will require anywhere from six to eight months for completion, and once the correct cables are in place, the switch will be done during off-hours over a couple of weekends.

“We can’t turn off the system while we make the switch at the main hospital, so we will sequentially plug it in and test it one section at a time,” he says. “It will require a lot of different groups and moving parts, but we’re hoping for a relatively painless transition.”

While the operation has been smooth sailing, Suter understands that even with the most coordinated efforts between operations and IT, and the most advanced planning and problem-anticipation from the project management team, avoiding all disruptions will be impossible. Some high-traffic areas will need to suffice with fewer stations for a time, and there will likely be a short while where the delivery system is running in manual mode.

Fortunately, MD Anderson Cancer Center is staffed with some of the most highly trained and experienced clinicians, technicians, and physicians in the nation who are dedicated to their mission no matter what obstacles may be in their way—least of all a temporary suspension of their pneumatic tube system. For a short period, it may take more time for important medicines and samples to reach their destinations. But that will never stop the unbeatable “sneaker power” of the heroes across all departments who work together to fight cancer every day at MD Anderson Cancer Center.