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At Mayo Clinic, RFID Slashes Error Rate

A study showed that after the organization's endoscopy unit began using passive 13.56 MHz tags to identify specimen bottles, the rate of labeling errors dropped by 94 percent.
By Beth Bacheldor
Oct 29, 2008Several years ago, United Hospital, in St. Paul, Minn., made headlines when it informed a patient she had breast cancer and then—two days after undergoing a double mastectomy—the woman learned she never had the disease. That mistake was due to an error in the pathology lab, where her biopsy slides and paperwork were mixed up with those of another patient.

The Mayo Clinic has had its share of specimen labeling errors as well—though, fortunately, none have resulted in tragedies—but researchers at the hospital believe they've found a cure: radio frequency identification. To confirm their hypothesis, the team analyzed the number of specimen-labeling errors for the first three months of 2007, prior to the adoption of RFID labels, and compared that total to the quantity of such errors for the first three months of this year, after the initiation of RFID specimen labeling.


The bottom of each specimen bottle is fitted with a passive 13.56 MHz tag.

Led by Dr. Schuyler O. Sanderson, with help from colleagues Dr. Dawn L. Francis and researcher Shalini Prabhakar, the group focused on the Mayo Clinic's endoscopy unit and pathology lab in Rochester, which maintains three separate endoscopy practice areas comprising 41 endoscopy suites. All three practice areas utilize the same laboratory and data system.

In the summer of 2007, the researchers deployed an off-the-shelf RFID-enabled library tracking system from 3M, modified slightly to fit the requirements of the endoscopy unit and pathology lab. Passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags, complying with the ISO 18000-3 standard, are affixed to the sides of specimen bottles. After placing a specimen inside a bottle, Francis says, a nurse waves it over a pad containing an RFID interrogator, then enters into a computerized database the patient information and the instructions for that specimen. That data is correlated with the RFID tag's unique ID number. An adhesive paper label is printed out and affixed to the side of the bottle, Francis says, and the electronic record with the RFID tag number is automatically sent to the pathology lab.

When the pathology lab receives the specimen bottles, Francis explains, they are waved over a pad with an RFID reader that captured its tag's unique ID number. That number is then reconciled with information in the database, and the lab pulls up the electronic record associated with that particular specimen.

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