An Overlooked Use of RFID at Hospitals

By Ygal Bendavid and Yasmina Maïzi

Making the case for scrubs-management systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) were already plaguing hospitals worldwide, the introduction of the COVID-19 virus at these facilities made the situation worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that, although this is not thought to be the main way in which the virus spreads, a person can become infected by touching a surface that has the virus on it "and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes."

Because of its viral persistence, the COVID-19 virus can survive on surfaces from several hours to even days, contaminating personal protective equipment (PPE) such as medical gowns or scrubs—which, in turn, may serve as a vehicle for transmission of the virus. A member of a medical staff who contracts COVID-19 or is supplied with PPE that might be contaminated will put his or her colleagues and patients at higher risk, contributing to the spread of the pandemic.

Hospitals are aware of this relationship between scrubs and the transmission of germs that cause infections, yet they struggle to improve infection control and the prevention of cross-contamination by ensuring that employees make good use of their uniforms. Indeed, the scrubs-distribution systems currently used at most hospitals do not prevent employees from manipulating the scrubs in the shelving areas, bringing them outside the hospital or hiding spare uniforms in their lockers—which would surely be non-compliant with infection-control regulations.

Hospitals that have deployed RFID solutions, such as smart cabinets, to help manage uniforms have initially focused on operational savings, including reducing inventory levels or preventing losses and the theft of scrubs, leading to replacement purchases. These obvious benefits alone may not always justify the cost of such solutions, but that has changed during the current pandemic.

Some cases have been documented in which RFID-based solutions have brought visibility to uniform distribution. This is an often-overlooked but critical process, enabling a reduction in the cost of replacement purchases, while also preventing items from leaving a hospital without authorization.

Since a return on investment (ROI) directly measures the gain or loss on a particular investment, managers tend to focus on quantitative and financial measures to analyze profitability and make a decision. They must also consider the indirect costs and benefits when they determine ROI and examine how RFID-based solutions can impact the bottom line, based on quality performance indicators used to measure the efficiency of their operations, the security of medical personnel and the safety of patients.

For instance, what about the hidden costs derived from scrubs contamination or shortages? The cost of mental exhaustion and the fear of not being properly equipped? The cost of losing a member of a medical team? And the cost of contaminating a patient?

This reminds me of a column on hand-hygiene compliance published a few years ago, in which we explained how, following a chain of events, hospitals reduced patients' length of stay by hundreds of days per year, resulting in significant cost savings and, ultimately, life savings. This would be equally beneficial in the current situation.

The Lancet rightly reported that while we stay at home to minimize the spread of the virus, health-care workers are doing the exact opposite, going to hospitals and putting themselves at risk. Let's be sure they have the equipment they need, by having better control of distribution—especially now that any PPE is worth its weight in gold.

Ygal Bendavid is a full professor at the School of Management (ESG) - Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Dr. Bendavid is the founder and director of the IoT Lab. He holds M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in industrial engineering from the École Polytechnique de Montréal. As a specialist in RFID and the IoT for supply chain management, he is a frequent presenter at RFID Journal LIVE! conferences and a member of the judges for the RFID Journal Awards.

Yasmina Maïzi is a professor at the School of Management (ESG) - Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). She holds M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in industrial engineering from Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (France). Dr. Maïzi has an extensive professional experience in modelling complex systems using simulation, data analysis and optimization. She is an associate member of the Internet of Things (IoT) Lab and the CRI2GS lab at ESG-UQAM. Her research interest focuses on the integration of the IoT for health-care operation management and the integration of digital twins in services.