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GE Announces Plans to Develop RFID-Guided Robots for Managing Surgical Tools

Scientists at GE Global Research will spend two years developing a prototype system for VA hospitals, using RFID to help automate the process of transporting, cleaning and storing surgical tools.
By Claire Swedberg
When a kit was needed for surgery, a mobile robot could place it on a stainless steel cart with an active RFID tag attached to it. The kit's tag ID would be associated with the cart ID in the software. A real-time location system (RTLS) could employ readers installed within the hospital's corridors or operating rooms, to capture the ID number of the cart's tag and determine that cart's location in real time. Passive tags could alternatively be used, with passive RFID portals installed to track the cart's passage from the storage area to an OR.

If the cart were a self-guided, robotic device on wheels, DeRose says, active RFID tags could be used for path planning and locating. Alternatively, her team will also look into other technology, such as computer vision to map out the device's expected route, and to ensure that it remains on that path.

DeRose expects there to be four validation points at which RFID tags on kits and their contents would be read using an RFID interrogator to ensure that the correct kit and tools were at the right location. Those validation points, she says, could include a location just prior to delivery to the OR, in the surgical room (to record the kit's contents upon arrival, as well as after surgery when leaving the OR, and finally at the cleaning area (to confirm which tools and kit have arrived for cleaning).

All details are still open for consideration, however, DeRose says. Because GE Healthcare and GE Global Research have a range of RFID readers and tags already on hand, the researchers plan to test a variety of hardware options prior to building a prototype, and they may also opt to test hardware not previously used by GE. Once the prototype is completed in 2014, it will be demonstrated at a VA hospital for three months, in order to obtain feedback from a variety of VA hospitals and personnel. The commercialization, business plans and return on investment (ROI), she adds, will all be developed during the course of the project.

While the solution is intended to reduce infection rates, DeRose says, many more benefits have been identified, including an improvement in the efficiency of surgery and scheduling, since kit accuracy is higher and instrument-counting time is lower. Moreover, the system could reduce setup and room turnaround times, as well as optimize inventory accuracy.

"We're very excited," DeRose states.

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