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RFID can be a matter of life and death in the medical world

Madison, Wis. - Radio frequency identification technology is often touted as a way to improve supply chain management. But in the health care world, the technology is bringing other, perhaps more important benefits: safety and security.

"Everybody wants to focus on the supply chain now, and there are tremendous applications in health care … a lot of applications that seem natural in the marketplace," said Reik Read, an analyst with Robert W. Baird and Co. in Milwaukee.

The technology is slowing gaining momentum in medical fields, where hospitals and clinics are not only using it to track supplies but, also, to track patients and to add another level of security at medical facilities.

A tag with a price

RFID consists of a small tag attached to an item with a microchip that contains information about the item and an antenna that broadcasts that information to a receiver. Active tags have their own power supply and send signals to readers, while passive tags are activated by specific receiver signals.
The technology has been adopted heavily by suppliers, who use the tags to track product pallets on the warehouse floor and monitor them once they get shipped out. Viewed as the next generation of bar coding, it doesn't require a line of sight to be scanned and provides real-time information about the product's status.

To hospitals, which use bar coding in a wide variety of areas, RFID may seem like the next logical step. Carl Christensen, chief information officer of the Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wis., said, as an example, if hospitals were to swap bar code bracelets worn by patients with RFID bracelets, the patient's status could be continually monitored by the receivers and recorded in the hospital network.

Trend toward wireless infrastructure

Jun Davantes, director of product development at the Brookfield-based supplier RF Technologies, said a trend that has helped support RFID is the move by hospitals to adopt a wireless infrastructure. When a hospital creates such a network, it means that suppliers have something to build on and watch out for. It also provides them with an experienced IT group to deal with.

The technology has plenty of issues, however. Raj Veeramani, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's E-Business Consortium, said that due to the sensitive nature of the radio waves, the system's communication can be complicated by the presence of other medical equipment. Additionally, an existing computer network in a hospital may have some difficulties integrating with the RFID information.

RFID systems in a hospital require installation of receivers in key points, a process that takes collaboration between the suppliers and building architects. The floor plans have to be studied closely, and installers have to make sure receivers connect with existing computer networks and transitions between floors are smooth.

"RFID applications in hospitals are at present limited to closed-loop or within-the-four-walls applications," Veeramani said. "Expanding the scope of RFID application across the health care services network (e.g., hospitals, testing labs, blood banks, EMS, etc.) will require a concerted effort to develop industry-wide standards for RFID technology and practices."

The technical difficulties are one factor that may keep RFID from being installed in a hospital, but another issue that always comes up is cost. RFID is expensive to implement in hospitals - some of the receivers are priced at $2,000 - and the fact that RFID can make bar codes seem obsolete might not sit well with IT professionals at hospitals.

"Right now it's a cost issue," Christensen said. "A lot of hospitals have invested heavily in their bar code readers and those would have to be replaced."

Keeping an eye on old and young

Although it is far from becoming an industry standard, RFID has seen its share of success in individual hospitals to provide security. Companies like RF Technologies have customized RFID to develop tracking systems, using armbands to monitor patients who need special care.

Maternity wards, where the threat of infant abduction adds to the already considerable anxiety of new parents, is a prime example of the benefits of RFID-based security. In hospitals that have RFID systems, children are given wristbands with a code number or other identifying mark specific to that hospital, corresponding to the child's name and room number.

Tim Wiza, security director of the RFID-equipped Milwaukee hospital Columbia St. Mary's, said that if a child is taken outside of the ward before the wristband is deactivated, the wristband sends a signal to the security office highlighting the location of the infant. From there, the security staff can respond immediately and head straight to where the alarm was sounded.

"The parents just love the fact their newborn is protected for the time they're in the hospital," Wiza said of reactions to the system.

Security for Alzheimer's, dementia patients

The RFID systems have also been applied in long-term care facilities with patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease, who may be unaware of their actions and need constant observation. Whenever patients step outside a set boundary the receiver picks up the signal and sets off an alarm, eliminating the need for security guards in every room at every hour.

"Although it's not front page news, there are people who wander outside of nursing homes and freeze to death right outside the building because no one accounted for them," said Patti Harris, vice president of sales and marketing for RF Technologies.

Both types of systems successfully have been used in hospitals across the country, such as the Cleveland Clinic and at Milwaukee's Columbia St. Mary's. A beta test of Safe Place conducted at Minnesota's Mercy Hospital in March 2004 yielded a 60 percent decrease in patient watches, and the saved time led to a projected $110,000 annual savings by the hospital, according to the hospital.

Not just tracking patients

Sometimes, hospitals can even get additional use out of the technology. In Columbia St. Mary's, a doctor who got fed up with other doctors walking away with her stethoscopes decided to build on the existing security systems. Attaching tags used in monitoring infants to her equipment, she was able to track the whereabouts of her stethoscopes - thanks to an alarm when it was spirited away.

While that application was modified from patient tracking, asset tracking has become another principle use of medical RFID. In hospitals, appliances such as ultrasound and EKG machines are in limited supply, so the staff needs to know exactly where they are and who has them so they can be produced quickly in a time of emergency.

Christensen suggested that RFID could also be used in a security capacity, as Marshfield Clinic staff members already have RFID-incorporated security badges granting them access to certain areas. That frequency could be upgraded to connect with computer terminals in a hospital, clearing the owner to enter the main network.

Although Marshfield would not use such technology - everyone in the clinic has personalized tablet computers - Christensen said it would be useful in hospitals that have shared workstations.

As medical professionals realize the security and safety benefits of RFID technology, and as hospitals increasingly develop new facilities with greater levels of technology infrastructure, RFID is expected to play an expanding role in health care.

See previous WTN coverage on RFID and healthcare technology:
Tommy Thompson to get RFID implant
Conference studies applications and lessons of RFID

Les Chappell is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at


Jim Rice responded 9 years ago: #1

Healthcare must not forget its roots in caring for the person. As healthcare continually drives to improve process to reduce cost, the patient / healthcare provider relationship is often overlooked or religated to a secondary status. Outcome will suffer although the metrics will improve.

Geoff Jung responded 8 years ago: #2

Is there any other company on the market that make child abduction detection systems besides HUGS (Veri-Chip)?

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