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RFID system aids hospital in tracking assets

Brookfield, Wis. - The biggest fear for a doctor may be losing a patient, but a significant annoyance is missing equipment. In the hectic environment of a hospital, there are hundreds of supplies to keep track of and no way to watch every one - a process that often leaves doctors rooting around in the supply closet for an IV stand or jumping from room to room in the hunt for a defibrillator.

According to Barry Chaiken, associate chief medical officer at BearingPoint, the hunt for supplies is often made even more difficult by the labyrinthine process of hospital organization. In hospitals that have only one central location for storing or repairing equipment, equipment has to be brought to one location once it is done being used, meaning it can be either constantly going through transit or lost along the way.

"You have to bring every piece of equipment down to a central place, then bring it up and bring it back down … even if it's needed next floor, next door," Chaiken said.

With these difficulties and the resulting costs in mind, Brookfield-based RF Technologies has come up with a new option for tracking hospital equipment with the Seeker Mobile Locating Solution. Using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to tag and track hospital supplies, RF Technologies hopes to make sure doctors can find the tools to do their job with a push of a button.

"Clinicians spend a lot of time looking for equipment to do their jobs and we hope to save them time and money," said James Hermann, vice president of business development at RF Technologies.
The Seeker system consists of a set of active RFID tags which can be affixed to pieces of medical equipment, as well as a handheld wireless scanner that is keyed into a frequency given off by the tags. When a physician wants to find a specific piece of equipment, they program it into the scanner and the scanner lets them know how close they are to the object, locating signals up to 300 feet away.

"Think of it as the warm, hot, hotter method," Hermann said, likening the scanner interface to bars on a cellular telephone - the better the signal, the closer the object.

Since the Seeker system relies on active RFID tags as opposed to passive tags used in warehouse settings, RF Technologies was able to increase the available features. Each of the tags contains a beeper and a light-emitting diode, so when the scanner is activated, the tags can be both heard and seen. Additionally, the tags possess an extended battery life and can operate for up to two years.

In addition to using the system to find missing pieces of equipment, hospitals can also use it to take inventory of hospital resources. According to Hermann, many hospitals have a "broken process" for their equipment and often claim a shortage when there isn't one, which can lead to excessive orders for supplies they already have in stock.

"It's not uncommon that they have 750 of a resource, when they should have 500 … That kind of inefficiency just keeps exploding," Hermann said.

Patrick Snyder, information services manager at Aurora Healthcare, which conducted a beta test of the Seeker earlier this year, said the system works particularly well for tracking some of their more expensive pieces of equipment, such as specialist beds and pumps.

"There's always the possibility that in trying to keep track of our inventory, we're going to lose some various pieces of equipment," Snyder said. "When you look at equipment that costs several thousand dollars, it's a reasonable insurance policy."

Techno glitches

However, despite the benefits, installing RFID in hospitals is not yet seen as the definite solution. Chaiken said cost is often a prohibitive factor as the active chips and wireless networks are expensive, and it can be difficult to train a full hospital staff to use the technology. Additionally, hospital policy can get in the way if the technology doesn't fit into their existing setup.

"There are issues related to the technology in terms of reliability, upgrading is not really standard, and you may have some issues working with RFID," said Alfonso Gutierrez, associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison E-Business Consortium. "There are a lot of people-related issues. You need a lot of education to adopt these technologies."

Hermann said that RF Technologies had this cost in mind when designing the Seeker system, and responded by making it a mobile locator system. Unlike more complicated RFID tracking systems that require permanent scanners and cost more than $200,000, Seeker only consists of the tags and scanner, both of which operate completely wireless.

"There's no infrastructure, nothing to wire into the walls," Hermann said.

Chaiken said that in the future, he hopes to see RFID evolve into a system that encompasses the entire hospital, and tags doctors along with patients. If tags could be added to hospital ID badges, doctors would not only know where a piece of equipment is, but who has it. With the right form of artificial intelligence controlling the system, equipment use would be easy to schedule.

"If you know where the people are, the equipment they need to use, and if it's a 16-hour day or 24-hour day, you know best how to deploy it," Chaiken said.

Click here for previous coverage of RFID in the healthcare field:

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

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