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Georgia Tech Researchers Test RFID's Effects on Implanted Medical Devices

The results will be used to reduce the potential for RFID signals to cause pacemakers and other equipment to malfunction.
By Beth Bacheldor
Jul 31, 2007Electromagnetic emissions from electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems, microwaves and other technologies have been shown to interfere with medical devices such as pacemakers. In an effort to determine if RFID can cause similar interference, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), a nonprofit applied research arm of Atlanta's Georgia Institute of Technology, is now testing RFID systems and their effects on a variety of medical devices. The tests are being conducted in GTRI's Medical Device Test Center, founded in 1995 specifically to test the effects of electromagnetic radiation on medical devices.

GTRI has been testing the impact of electromagnetic emissions since the late 1960s, at the behest of the U.S. Army, which sought to better understand how military radar systems might interfere with the operation of civilian electronic systems. At that time, reports began surfacing that microwave ovens were cutting off the power of implanted pacemakers—electronic devices surgically implanted into patients' hearts and chests to regulate heartbeats. Therefore, the Army teamed with the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, as well as GTRI and several pacemaker manufacturers, to investigate electromagnetic interference (EMI) involving the devices.

To test RF interence on implantable medical devices, GTRI uses a torso simulator consisting of a tank filled with saline solution to simulate the electrical characteristics of the body tissue and fluid.
In so doing, GTRI developed a method for testing EMI in implantable pacemakers and other such devices, using a torso simulator—a rectangular tank filled with saline solution, which simulates the electrical characteristics of body tissues and fluids. The method has been incorporated into the pacemaker standard issued by the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), a worldwide developer of medical-device standards.

With RFID use becoming more prevalent, the Medical Device Test Center is incorporating the technology into its tests. "The first RFID systems that were installed and used were mainly in distribution, and were limited to warehouse environments, so RFID wasn't something that the general public would be exposed to," says Ralph Herkert, the center's senior research engineer and manager. "But now RFID's use is expanding. It's going from tracking pallets down to items, and from the point of manufacture all the way to the point of sale."

RFID is also becoming more widely utilized in the drug and health-care sector (see Report Sees Sharp Rise in Pharma RFID), and is increasingly being used to track medical devices and patients, as well as monitor implantable medical devices.

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