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RFID pilot project aims to improve blood banks

Madison, Wis. - To find out whether radio frequency identification can improve the speed and accuracy of the blood banking process, the RFID Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is partnering with three blood banks and multiple vendor partners on what is being called an "end-to-end" research project.

The project, which will look at RFID's potential role from donation to transfusion, involves the Blood Center of Wisconsin, Carter BloodCare of Richardson, Texas, and Mississippi Blood Services of Jackson, Miss. Like most blood service facilities, their products face a short shelf life and require cold storage conditions, and the research project is designed to measure the performance of RFID in reading blood bags and containers.

Blood banking is the process of collecting, processing, and storing block for later use. On an annual basis, nearly five million Americans receive blood components - including red blood cells, plasma, and platelets - in a transfusion, according the American Association of Blood Banks. Blood banks not only worry about a lack of supply from donors, they must guard against problems with existing supplies such as the transmission of blood-borne infections, and they must test blood for infectious disease.

Out for blood

The key thrust of the research project, however, is more fundamental. “The main area for the application is to prevent what is called a `mistransfusion error,' where somebody matched the patient with the wrong type of blood,” said Alfonso Gutierrez, director of the RFID Lab.
Rodeina Davis, vice president-CIO of the Blood Center of Wisconsin, said blood products must remain within a certain temperature range at all times, or they can't be transfused. Some blood products such as Fresh Frozen Plasma need to be manufactured within eight hours of starting the blood donation process.

The fundamental question is whether an automated RFID process can convey blood to hospitals faster and more safely than existing manual to bar code scanning. According to Davis, RFID might be helpful in tracking the time and temperature of blood bags starting from the time of donation and proceeding through manufacturing, testing, labeling, and shipping to hospitals.

“We're talking about more than quality,” Davis said. “We're looking at productivity, quality, and safety.”

RF technology

RFID systems are used to identify everything from clothing tags to missiles. To transmit signals, they consist of an antenna and a transceiver that read the radio frequency and transfer the information to a processing device and a transponder or tag, which contains radio frequency circuitry and the information to be transmitted.

UW-Madison's RFID workgroup, formed in September of 2003, attempts to help Wisconsin industries use RFID technology to remain competitive. It has roughly 40 private-sector members, but it is designed to provide a non-commercial forum for experimentation, knowledge sharing, and research into the possibilities and limitations of RFID technologies.

Just how limited or unlimited RFID is in the process of blood banking is yet to be determined. Gutierrez said several of the main blood products require cool temperatures, while others require very low temperatures that present a challenge in figuring out which technology works best. Other challenges related to the use of RFID in blood banking involve packaging, how the product moves from station to station, and finding the radio frequency that is most appropriate to the application.

He said the project has been divided into to four phases, including a prototype phase involving area technology vendors that is underway while the three blood centers define processes. That will be followed by a pilot in which a product will be delivered on a limited basis to hospitals and tested before deployment.

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