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RFID Holds Promise for Blood Supply Chain

Widespread RFID use could prevent 40,000 to 45,000 blood donations in the US from being wasted every year and save more than $9 million, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin RFID lab. Three blood centers are spearheading research into how RFID can improve blood handling processes.
Mar 04, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

March 4, 2008—Three blood centers and the University of Wisconsin-Madison RFID Lab are researching whether RFID can improve blood tracking and distribution operations. Project organizers completed the first phase of their research and estimated widespread use of RFID-supported quality control processes in the US could reduce transfusion errors, prevent 40,000 to 45,000 units of blood from being discarded each year, and save the industry $9 million.

"The first phase was to assess the viability of using RFID in that segment of the supply chain. We wanted to see how RFID would fit into current processes and if processes would be improved with RFID," Alfonso Gutierrez, the University of Wisconsin's RFID Lab director, told RFID Update. "Phase 2 is the prototype stage, where we are now. We are building the basic components of the system and will be testing them in the real environment -- that is, blood centers and hospitals. But we won't test with blood for transfusions. The focus is on hardware and software integration. The phase might be completed by the end of the year."

FDA approval is required to test RFID on blood that will be used in transfusions, according to Gutierrez. He said researchers exposed blood samples to RFID readers and conducted other tests to assess how RFID could affect blood, and have submitted their results to the FDA for review.

The BloodCenter of Wisconsin in Milwaukee initiated the project more than a year ago, and recruited Carter BloodCare of Dallas and Mississippi Blood Services of Jackson, Mississippi, to join in the research. The three organizations collectively manage 500,000 blood donations annually.

The research has focused on the blood supply chain from the time the donation is received at a blood center, through testing, production, and inventory processes, to when the final blood product is delivered to a hospital. If blood can't be identified it can't be used, so accurate tracking throughout is essential. Blood centers must also ensure temperature integrity is maintained and that blood is distributed before it expires. Problems with these processes cause a typical blood center to discard 15,000 to 20,000 donations annually, at an average cost of more than $200 per unit, according to the researchers.

The primary motivator behind investigating RFID is not saving time or replacing bar codes, which are widely used for blood tracking around the world, but to improve safety and accuracy.

"It is not our intention to replace bar code, but to augment existing systems," said Gutierrez. "We are creating a level of redundancy to increase safety. We envision bar code and RFID being used together."

Blood bags are typically recorded and tracked by scanning bar codes standardized by the International Society of Blood Transfusion (ISBT). RFID can save time compared to bar coding, and enables unattended tracking.

Researchers, staff, and students at the University of Wisconsin RFID Lab evaluated how microwave, UHF, and HF technologies performed for blood identification. UHF and HF did much better than microwave, according to Gutierrez.

"There was not very much difference in performance between UHF and HF. The decision to go with HF was not based purely on performance," Gutierrez said. "The technology's maturity, standards, and its global aspects were all big factors. HF standards are already global."

To test RFID's suitability for blood supply chain processes, researchers used ISBT 128-standard bar code data structures and encoded the information in ISO-standard high frequency (HF) RFID tags.

"Today when you receive collected blood at a blood center, the process involves bar code scanning the bags one by one. We have an RFID process that can process 28 or 30 bags in five seconds," Gutierrez said.

Current project activity is focused on developing software that can take advantage of RFID in blood handling operations and also integrate with legacy blood tracking and management applications. Researchers are also developing hardware requirements, and they hope to conduct trials.

"Next we hope it would become a standard in the blood industry. That could take a few years," Gutierrez said. He noted that the EPCglobal Gen2 high frequency standard is expected to be released before the blood industry research is completed, and could be a viable standard for the RFID portion of the system (see Disagreement Awaits Imminent HF Gen2 RFID Standard for more background about Gen2 HF).

There is worldwide interest in using RFID for various blood tracking processes. The Amsterdam-based ISBT, which draws members from 85 countries, is working on its own RFID standard, according to Gutierrez. The Malaysian government is reportedly considering RFID to manage blood at more than 300 facilities nationwide, following a trial conducted by the National Blood Bank (see Intel & Siemens Launch RFID Blood Bank in Malaysia).
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