How RFID Is Being Implemented Within the Healthcare Industry

By John Bailey

It's vital to understand how the technology works, how different RFID tags are used at hospitals and what barriers prevent RFID from being implemented at every facility.

Improving and developing healthcare technology is a priority in the United States, especially in recent years. Unfortunately, studies have found that tens of thousands of people die every year from preventable medical errors at hospitals. Researchers pour time and money into finding innovative ways to reduce the potential for human error and to make the healthcare system more efficient.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a technology that uses radio waves to collect and transfer data. It has traditionally been used in supply chain management, primarily for tracking goods at warehouses. In recent years, however, the technology has been introduced to the healthcare industry. RFID provides real-time traceability, communication and location data, which is valuable for hospitals and other healthcare centers.

In order to understand the role of RFID in healthcare software development, it's important to know how the technology works, how different types of RFID tags are used at hospitals and what barriers are preventing RFID from being implemented at every medical facility.

How RFID Worls
An RFID system is composed of three main parts: the transponder or tag, the transponder reader and the database software application. The transponder reader uses radio frequency signals to capture data from the RFID tag, including the tag's identification, location and other encrypted information. This collected data is then sent through a local area network to a database on a server. Users can retrieve the information using a software application.

RFID technology doesn't require line-of-sight for transponder readers to capture information, so the system is efficient and easy to use. It also allows for real-time data collection, which means the information collected by the technology is immediately available to personnel. This can be especially valuable for emergency room or intensive care staff who are in time-sensitive situations.

Types of RFID in Healthcare
There are a few main types of RFID tags, and each serves a different purpose in the healthcare industry.

Passive: These are simple tags without batteries. They use high-power readers that send out low-frequency radio signals to collect data. Passive tags are extremely inexpensive, often costing as little as 10 cents each. Because they don't use a battery, they can last forever.

Active: These tags constantly beacon out a signal to make connections with RFID readers. They can accurately track real-time location, and they have a longer read range than passive tags. Active tags use batteries, so they require some maintenance and upkeep to stay functional.

Intelligent: These are similar to active RFID tags in that they use battery-powered sensors and their data is sent to the cloud. However, intelligent tags run algorithms locally before sending location data to the cloud. The tags activate at certain intervals, scan their environment for reference points, and send new location information if they have moved since their last scan. Because they only send data when necessary, intelligent tags save energy and provide more concise data.

Applications of RFID in Healthcare
Here are some of the most common and valuable uses of RFID technology in healthcare:

Inventory Tracking: Hospitals have massive supplies of medicine and other equipment that they need to keep track of, which typically involves manual counting and scanning barcodes. This takes up staff members' time and leaves room for human error. RFID tags allow for faster, more accurate and more frequent inventory counting. Tags can be placed inside or outside of bottles and boxes, so the system works well for most types of inventory. The technology can even monitor the temperature of heat-sensitive medications to ensure the inventory is being stored properly. Another use for RFID tags is inventory authentication. Counterfeiting has been on the rise in the healthcare industry, but placing encrypted RFID tags on supplies allows hospitals and pharmacies to verify that the items are authentic.

Patient and Staff Tracking: RFID tags placed on hospital wristbands can be used to locate patients and verify their information. This can prevent patients from receiving the wrong medication or being sent to the wrong wing of the hospital. An RFID tag can be encoded with a patient's date of birth, allergies and other critical information to prevent mix-ups or mistakes. RFID technology can also strengthen a hospital's security system. With RFID access control, employees must wave or tap their RFID badges to gain access to certain locations. This prevents unauthorized access, lowers the risk of theft or damage, and makes staff and patients safer.

Surgical Tools: Tools like scissors, scalpels and clamps are needed frequently for surgeries. There are many unfortunate instances each year in which surgical tools aren't properly disinfected, so they carry bacteria from a previous operation. RFID tracking can help to ensure that tools are sterilized before being reused and that tools are brought to the right location. On-metal RFID tags can withstand the disinfecting process in the autoclave, so it's easy to equip most types of surgical tools with RFID technology.

Limitations to RFID in Healthcare
Although there are many benefits to using RFID in healthcare software development, there are also some factors preventing the technology from achieving widespread use in the industry. The biggest issue with RFID technology is the cost. Hospitals are often not willing to spend a large sum of money on technology that is still being explored. The price of an RFID tag ranges from a few cents to $50 or more, and tag readers cost $1,000 to $3,000 each. A fully functioning RFID system at an average hospital could cost millions of dollars. The tags are also so small that patients could easily carry them away from the hospital, so maintaining an RFID system is an ongoing expense.

Technical limitations create another challenge. RFID technology may interfere with some types of medical equipment, and there are sometimes system errors. RFID is not yet standardized, so there can be interoperability problems with other types of healthcare technology. Developers are still looking for the best ways to implement RFID technology into the healthcare industry. However, the use of RFID in healthcare so far has made hospitals safer and more efficient for both staff and patients. Throughout the next few years, we will likely see even more growth in the use of RFID tags in healthcare settings.

John Baily is the global director of healthcare at Chetu, a custom software development provider in Plantation, Fla. Bailey is an industry expert within the healthcare landscape and is considered a thought-leader within the IT community. He offers commentary on changing tides within the industry, including EHRs, telehealth and veterinary software.