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Children's Hospital Boston Joins Others Using RFID to Track Implantables

A growing number of hospitals and surgical suppliers are employing passive RFID tags to help them monitor the inventory and usage of implantable surgical devices, as well as to manage billing.
By Beth Bacheldor
Zimmer is another orthopedics implant maker employing Magellan's PJM technology. The company says it uses hundreds of thousands of tags to track its products—including hip, knee, shoulder, elbow, spinal and trauma implant kits—as they're shipped to hospitals worldwide. The benefits, according to Zimmer, include more accurate inventory and invoicing, as well as faster picking, packing and shipping processes. This has led to reduced labor costs, easier tracking of returned products and a significant reduction in errors fulfilling orders.

Based in Warsaw, Ind., and operating worldwide, Zimmer reported sales of about $3.5 billion in 2006. The company first began utilizing RFID in late 2005 to track implants shipping from its five distribution centers in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane) and its center in Auckland, New Zealand. Since then, it has added the technology to its centers in Bangkok, Thailand; in Singapore; and in the Japanese cities of Gotemba, Heiwajima and Fukuoka. Overall, says Michael Schaffler, Zimmer's operations director, the firm has tagged more than 700,000 products—approximately 200,000 each year.

According to Schaffler, Zimmer decided to implement RFID largely to help it manage the complex supply chain, which he says is typical of the orthopedic industry. Most often, he notes, hospitals use consigned implants owned by the supplier but residing at the hospital, ready to be used in joint replacement or trauma surgery. In some cases, implants are loaned to a medical facility for a single surgery.

Because every patient is different, surgeons require a multitude of implant variants and sizes for each case. "In most cases, 100 to 150 implant kits are sent for each case," Schaffler says, adding that only about 3 percent of these devices are used in a particular surgery. As a result, many implant kits are shipped out and later returned to Zimmer's distribution centers.

Before Zimmer implemented RFID, each kit was bar-coded and manually scanned, which was a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. "We had a significant bottleneck in bar-code-scanning each orthopedic implant as it left a Zimmer warehouse and was then returned after each case, " Schaffler says. "Often, emergency surgery requirement did not allow for sufficient time to bar-code scan each implant as it left the Zimmer distribution center."

Instead of using bar codes to identify each kit, the company now utilizes Magellan's passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags and interrogators. A tunnel reader, fitted over a conveyor belt, automatically scans the RFID tag affixed to an individual tote containing all the kits pertinent to a customer order. Each tote's tag is associated with the product and lot number of a particular implant in a back-end database, and thus collects the tag's serial number, product number, lot number, expiration date and manufacture date.

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