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Software company enters health space with RFID solutions on hold

Milwaukee, Wis. - As president of Niceware International, a Milwaukee developer of bar code and radio frequency identification software, Andy Matter has seen identification software used to track parts in the aerospace and computer industries, so it was only a matter of time before healthcare facilities came calling for help with identifying patients.

The company, founded in 2002, has produced NiceLabel software for the automatic identification and data collection industry, but recently started a healthcare business unit to focus on patient safety solutions.

As Matter explained, “15 to 20 percent of our business was transitioning into healthcare,” but that transition will occur over two generations of technology deployment, first bar code and eventually RFID.

While the new business unit was established to meet the identification needs of the healthcare industry, the Joint Commission (formerly Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) has yet to mandate the use of RFID to meet those goals. That means bar code technology will be the short-term answer to improve the identification of people and supplies.

Niceware's technology, which includes a recently launched handheld application, is used to label and positively identify patients and laboratory specimens, and to track supplies such as blood bags used in transfusions.
At Children's Hospital and Health System in Milwaukee, Niceware's bar code technology is all in the wrist. It may sound simple, but Niceware is one of three vendors that is helping the hospital upgrade the bar code identification system used on patient wristbands.

It's not as easy as it sounds. With patients ranging in size and age, the hospital needs to produce a variety of wristbands, with readable bar codes, at any one time. “Children's Hospital has specific needs, including unique patients that have special fittings,” Matter said. “They also deal with long-terms care, so comfort is an important consideration.”

First try goes awry

Nic Wellner, a clinical informatics specialist for Children's Hospital, said another system successfully scanned medications only 20 to 30 percent of the time during the hospital's testing process, and that factored in multiple attempts. It was never implemented.

“The process was unacceptable,” Wellner said. “If a nurse had to attempt a scan more than three times, that was defined as failure.”

Part of the problem was that the curvature of the human wrist made it difficult to read a linear bar code, which is corrected by a bar code that is positioned on the wristband so that it does not bend and presents a linear profile for the scanner.

Niceware provides a graphics-based software tool to position the bar code information on the wristband, which is distributed by Card Smart Systems, and a server component that captures the data and delivers it to a thermal printer manufactured by Cognitive Solutions.

The wristband not only has to contain bar coding to identify the patient's medical record, but information like name and date of birth - all the while being solvent proof and water proof without additional lamination, and soft enough not to cut the wrist.

According to Wellner, the three vendors have combined to develop a wrist band identification system with a first-scan accuracy of 99 percent.

RFID quantum leap

In the immediate future, Niceware's health focus will be on implementing bar code technology. Matter said the new business unit is ready to deploy RFID solutions in healthcare settings, as it already does for manufacturers. However, the penetration rate of bar code technology, the precursor to RFID, in only about 20 percent in hospitals.

Until the Joint Commission mandates the use of RFID for identification, Matter does not believe hospitals will rush to adopt it. “I think it's an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process, in the healthcare space,” he said.

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