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Good and Bad News About RFID in Hospitals

Executives will need to sort through some of the distorted reporting on recent studies of RFID's impact on hospital equipment.
By Mark Roberti
Jul 21, 2008Mark Twain, the great American writer, famously stated: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes." Well, when it comes to radio frequency identification, bad news travels around the World (Wide Web) before good news even gets out of bed.

We recently covered two stories involving studies of RFID's impact on hospital equipment. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of Amsterdam's Academic Medical Center in the Netherlands, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). This study concluded that RFID could disrupt the operation of defibrillators and other medical equipment, occasionally inducing "potentially hazardous incidents in medical devices."

RFID, the JAMA report claimed, could shut down equipment patients rely on (see Researchers Warn RFID May Disrupt Medical Equipment and A Sobering Warning on RFID in Hospitals). The study, while providing an important warning, may not have tested RFID as it's really used in hospitals. What's more, it didn't test the type of technology most commonly used in hospitals, opting instead for the type of RFID that poses the highest risk of generating electromagnetic interference (EMI) in nearby devices (see Dutch RFID Interference Study Is a Worst-Case Test).

We then published an article regarding a clinical study conducted in March of this year at Community North Hospital in Indianapolis, by researchers at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and RFID consulting and systems integration firm BlueBean. That study, entitled "RFID Usage in the Patient-Care Environment," found RFID systems did not interfere with hospital equipment (see New RFID Study Finds No Interference With Medical Devices).

I conducted a search of Google for JAMA and RFID, and found 150,000 references to the first study, which portrayed RFID negatively. A second search, however, turned up only nine references to the more positive Purdue University study.

Now, we can debate the different methodologies used in the two studies—they're spelled out in detail in our July 11 article—but it's clear the media and bloggers adore negative news about RFID. This is not a surprise. The media loves negative news about anything—the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment and so forth. The fact that the negative study was published in JAMA also lent it some credibility. Still, I have no doubt that if JAMA had published the positive report, it would not have been widely picked up.

As a result, there is a danger that a hospital executive considering the use of RFID to improve operations and patient safety might see the reports on the study published by JAMA, but nothing on the Purdue research, and conclude that perhaps the hospital should hold off deploying RFID because the technology isn't safe. That would be unfortunate, as RFID can clearly be used safely.

The Purdue study showed no effect when ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) systems were kept at a reasonable distance from medical equipment. So placing readers in utility rooms, near elevators and above doors between hospital wings or departments to track assets is not a problem. Moreover, high-frequency (HF) systems used for identifying patients, and for tracking stents and other medical devices, do not cause a problem—and there is no indication that low-power active RFID systems will interfere with medical equipment, either.

Both studies are valuable. The JAMA article alerted people to potential problems, while the Purdue report showed RFID can be used safely if not deployed too close to medical systems. I know, from the many articles RFID Journal has published over the years, that radio frequency identification can improve patient safety and medical outcomes while reducing costs for health-care providers. So smart executives running hospitals need to read both studies carefully—and if they deploy an RFID system, they should do so in ways that avoid the problems cited in the JAMA study. But I hope that they won't read all the distorted reporting on the JAMA study and jump to the wrong conclusion.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.
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Bryce Stammerjohan 2008-07-24 05:51:33 PM
RFID and healthcare equipment The JAMA article from the Dutch group certainly got our attention. We make a portable life-support device that must be up and operating 24/7/365. We are not so much worried about RFID interference in the hospital setting, but when the patients leave the hospital and are shopping at a retailer that has a powerful RFID reader in operation. We are studying the relevant hardware standards to see if we have to alter our Validation protocols and/or notify our existing patient base of this new hazard.
Ton Smit 2008-07-26 06:02:15 AM
Good and Bad News About RFID in Hospitals Re: Good and Bad News About RFID in Hospitals http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/articleview/4198/1/128/ Dear mr Roberti, We found the above article unfair, ill-founded and unbalanced. Your article concludes that the press deliberately pays more attention to negative RFID news. You even state that “it's clear the media and bloggers adore negative news about RFID”. This conclusion seems unvalid. Using Google we found 271 references to the Dutch study, and not 150,000, as you claim. And we found 92 references to the Indianapolis study, and not nine, as you claim. More importantly, comparing references is unfair. The Dutch study was published in JAMA almost exactly one month ago. The Indianapolis study still has to be published. This will take place in the August 2008 issue of Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology. So why compare hits by Google? In addition, only last week (17th July 2008) a press release was published on the Indianapolis study (by BlueBean, through PR-agency PressReleasePoint) with the preliminary findings of the study. By the way, Bluebean is maybe not the most independent source, as they promote themselves as “The RFID Solution Company”. So what does the number of Google references mean? Nothing. In our opinion the Dutch study at AMC hospital (carried out in 2006) is very detailed and thorough. The conclusions are much wider than published in JAMA. Needless to say, we have no relation at all to the Dutch RFID study. Ton Smit, editor-in-chief Qure (daily news service on healthcare IT, in Dutch).

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