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Tracking System Benefits Pakistani Infants, Doctors

A collaborative program is helping doctors track and treat the incidence of pneumonia in their patients by scanning NFC-based RFID tags on infants' bracelets.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 31, 2009RFID-enabled cell phones and ID bracelets can help doctors provide infants with better and more efficient care through the sharing of data among several dozen doctors and facilities, according to a study currently underway in Karachi, Pakistan. Thousands of infants in that city have been participating in a study the frequency of pneumonia occurrence and the origins of that pneumonia infection, while their health record is being tracked by health-care workers using phones to scan passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags embedded in ID bracelets.

Currently, Pakistani infants are not given a pneumococcal vaccine. Consequently, the study is intended to measure how often infants contract pneumonia, and how often those infections are the result of pneumococcal disease—a bacterial infection that can invade the lungs. By analyzing the data from the RFID-based study, researchers hope to understand whether a pneumococcal vaccine should be provided to Pakistani infants to reduce the rate of pneumonia infections.

The system, which follows children from the age six weeks to 18 months, will help researchers determine the rate of incidence of pneumonia in Pakistani infants, and whether the cause is pneumococcal disease. When an infant develops symptoms of pneumonia, he or she can immediately be tested for pneumococcal disease. To date, the study has helped make it easier for health-care workers to respond immediately to pneumonia symptoms reported by doctors, by alerting a health-care team to immediately report to a specific office to draw an infant's blood for testing. What's more, the system has afforded doctors access to data if they need it regarding a patient's records and health-care history, via a central server.

The program is known as the Interactive Alerts for Childhood Pneumonia, since it allows health-care workers to respond immediately to the need for pneumonia testing, and can send data to health-care workers if they request it. It has been in the works for the past three years, and bracelets began being distributed to parents of infants in Karachi last year. The program is a collaborative effort launched by the Interactive Research & Development (IRD), a Karachi-based nonprofit company committed to saving lives through improvements in global health, Karachi's Indus Hospital, where some patients are first tagged, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of International Health, which provided initial design of the project, including which technology would be used and how.

The program is being funded by the international nonprofit Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH), with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. MIT Media Lab's Next Billion Network program helped develop the RFID data software and screen display images, proposed the idea of using Nokia NFC phones, and helped produce the initial design and working prototype, from which the IRD team developed the final product.

Since November 2008, 4,000 children have been supplied with the bracelet—either at Indus Hospital, or at one of 15 government immunization centers—with another 500 expected by October, reaching the total intended number of 4,500 study participants. Bracelets are attached at the hospital or other locations, where six-week-old babies first visit health-care providers for vaccinations. During the visit, the parents are informed of the voluntary program, says Aamir Khan, IRD's executive director and an associate with the Bloomberg School's Department of International Health.

Those participating, though not compensated for their involvement, benefit from the closer scrutiny over their child's health history as it is tracked in a central location. Each child wears a ruggedized, waterproof bracelet consisting of a decorative beaded strap similar to other bracelets commonly worn by babies in Pakistan. Attached to the bracelet is a button-sized RFID tag that complies with the Near Field Communication (NFC) standard, encoded with a unique ID number that is linked to data about that patient, such as his or her name, date of birth and health history.

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