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Mississippi Blood Services Banks on RFID

The not-for-profit organization tested an RFID system to manage and track blood, improve safety, make deliveries more timely and lower costs.
By Samuel Greengard
To locate plasma for a patient, for example, an employee must stand in a 15-by-15-foot or 12-by-12-foot storage freezer at minus-30 degrees Celsius (minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit) and sort through bags. Scanning the bar codes manually with a laser pen can take a couple of minutes. The process is just as slow and unpleasant for handling shipments of platelets or red blood cells, which are stored at a slightly higher temperature.

Patel believed RFID could simplify the validation process by streamlining a series of checks and inspections needed to ensure the company was shipping blood to the right hospital or clinic. He also envisioned that the technology would simplify the management of blood within the coolers.

MBS has recently completed an RFID pilot tracking 1,000 bags of blood within a storage unit.

"The health-care industry, including hospitals, is under greater scrutiny to operate free of accidents and mistakes," says David Allen, president of MBS. "The use of RFID ensures that the right patient gets the right blood product."

In 2004, after deciding to forge ahead with the initiative, Patel contacted several companies and inquired about solutions, but came up empty-handed. "We had trouble finding a company with the right expertise and technology," says Patel. The low storage temperature for blood, combined with its high moisture content, created challenges for developing RFID-friendly packing materials. Most systems could not overcome labeling challenges and other environmental issues, or interference problems from other electronic devices.

Eventually, Patel discovered AARFID, a firm located in Eden, N.Y., specializing in assembling company-specific RFID solutions and systems integration. After several weeks of discussions, research and brainstorming with Chad Carpenter, president of AARFID, Patel and Carpenter agreed on a pilot using 1,000 units of blood products. The goal was to locate specific blood products from trays stored inside the cooler using RFID interrogators and passive tags attached to the blood bags.

The pair faced several challenges in this pursuit. First, MBS had to find a way to eliminate interference caused by the metal trays holding the blood bags, which rendered reading the passive tags nearly impossible. Other electronic devices, including telephones, also caused interference problems. Eventually, after testing a variety of passive tags—ranging from 13.56 MHz 915 MHz—it became clear that the high water content of the blood, combined with the metal trays, would cause additional problems. As a result, MBS swapped the metal trays for plastic ones, moved phone locations and replaced any packing materials using metal with plastic. "In some cases," says Carpenter, "we devised low-tech solutions to high-tech problems."

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