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Nutrace, Belintra Market RFID-based Surgical-Tool Tracking Solution in the U.S.

The Nutrace system, already used by hospitals in Europe, includes Belintra's passive HF RFID tags, Panmobil's handheld RFID readers and its own Stemato software for managing data.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 25, 2015

Nutrace, a health-care efficiency solutions company owned by Belgian firm Besco, has opened an office in Winston-Salem, N.C., to access the U.S. market for its hybrid RFID and bar-code solutions to track surgical tools through the cleaning, sterilization and kit-packing processes. The system is designed to help hospitals efficiently monitor which processes each tray of tools undergoes before reaching an OR and a patient.

Several of Besco's customers in Europe have been employing the hybrid system for at least the past three years, in order to identify trays and create a digital record of when those trays were loaded with surgical instruments, as well as the patient on which they were used and when they were cleaned and sterilized. The system consists of Belintra passive high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHZ RFID tags attached to trays, Panmobil handheld RFID readers to interrogate those tag IDs, and Nutrace's Stemato software to manage the collected data. Users can also purchase instrument trays that come with integrated Steri-ID tags.

Nutrace's solution includes Belintra's Steri-ID loop tags and Panmobil's SmartSCANNDY handheld RFID reader.
Radio frequency identification is only one component of the solution. Nutrace also provides a service whereby it laser-engraves data-matrix bar codes onto the surgical tools. The bar-coded ID numbers are linked, in the Stemato software, to the unique identifier encoded to the tray's RFID tag. In that way, a hospital can track not only which processes a particular tray has been through, but also which items are packed on it, as well as their own cleaning and sterilization status.

Traditionally, hospitals have tracked trays and tools manually to ensure that both the tools and the trays are properly cleaned and sterilized, and that the correct tools are packed on the trays destined for a particular surgical procedure. Tighter safety regulations in Europe and United States have led hospitals to seek more automated solutions, according to Gus Vargas, Nutrace's CEO. Besco, founded in 2002, has long offered a bar-code-only solution that helps make the process more efficient. However, Vargas says, bar codes pose some shortcomings when it comes to tracking trays. Printed bar-code labels are not indestructible—and, in fact, must be replaced every few months due to the washing and sterilization processes.

Gus Vargas, Nutrace's CEO
While Nutrace offers engraved data-matrix bar codes on the tools, ensuring that the bar codes aren't damaged over time, that process won't work on trays, which are considerably larger than surgical tools. What's more, an individual might need to go hunting for the laser-engraved bar-code number in order to scan it, which wastes time and efficiency. Workers would have a harder time spotting a laser-engraved bar code on a tray than they would a printed bar-code label like the ones Nutrace had been using. Trays are stacked in washers, on travel carts and on shelves in a variety of orientations, making it even more difficult for personnel to locate the etched bar code.

For those reasons, Nutrace is now offering an RFID version of its solution, with tags attached to trays. The company never considered using RFID tags on tools, Vargas says, because it felt that such a tag, which is typically very small, could fall off the tool to which it is attached and into a patient's incision. While there haven't been reports of this actually happening, the firm believes that the glue used for attaching tags is vulnerable to damage during the cleaning and sterilization processes, and so it didn't want to expose hospitals and patients to that risk.

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