How RFID Is Transforming VA Hospital Operations

By Mark Roberti

One of the largest rollouts of real-time location technology will help to improve care and reduce costs—and show other hospitals how a radio frequency identification deployment can be done right.


“Our driving factor was the frustrations [from staff] in finding the right equipment at the right time.”

That’s what Michael McDonald, the Veterans Administration‘s VISN 11 biomedical engineering point-of-care chief, told our reporter, Claire Swedberg, regarding why the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is rolling out the largest deployment of RFID technology to date in the health-care sector (see Veterans Affairs Implementing RTLS Across Seven Midwest Hospitals) earlier this month. It’s a frustration that many health-care providers share, but the VA is tackling the issue head-on.

The VA’s health-care system is divided geographically into 21 regions, known as Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs). Indiana, Illinois and Michigan comprise VISN 11, one of the first regions to deploy the real-time location system (RTLS) technology throughout its facilities. Once completed, the deployment will include 25,000 active RTLS tags, 94,000 passive RFID tags, and 2,000 wireless temperature and humidity sensors, and will cover a combined total of approximately 4.5 million square feet. The system also includes bar codes etched on 255,000 surgical instruments, as well as passive RFID tags for the 63,000 cardiac catheterization lab supplies consumed annually by the seven hospitals within the region.

VISN 11 spent at least five years evaluating the proper RTLS solutions that would accommodate the seven medical centers. The national contract the VHA recently (see RFID News Roundup: Veterans Affairs Awards $543 Million RTLS Contract to HP to Cover All VA Hospitals, Clinics) was built off best practices and lessons learned based on what VISN 11 has already completed, (the national contract is separate and unrelated to that of VISN 11).

The VHA has not rushed into this effort, and is not doing so simply for the sake of using new technology. It has identified four primary use cases: the tracking and management of assets, the monitoring of temperature and humidity levels, the tracking of items for the cardiac catheterization lab, and the monitoring of sterile processing services workflow related to surgical instruments. It chose the types of RFID that would deliver cost savings, reduce labor and improve care, and is integrating the data through Intelligent Insites‘ enterprise-wide RTLS software, which provides a single user interface for the applications, by managing data culled from all of the individual systems.

Nationwide, the Veterans Health Administration plans to invest $550 million. That’s a lot of money, but it expects to achieve a significant return on that investment (ROI).

Hospital executives have an opportunity to learn from the VA and VISN 11. McDonald will speak at RFID in Health Care, an event that RFID Journal is producing on Sept. 6, 2012, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, located just three miles from Logan International Airport. McDonald will explain how the VA evaluated passive and active systems, how it isolated four primary use cases for the technology, and why it expects to achieve an ROI.

This deployment, if it proves to be successful, could well be a game-changer for hospitals. I have spoken with VA officials, and based on the level of evaluation and testing they’ve conducted, as well as the business-oriented approach they are taking, I believe it will be. And I also believe that other hospitals will benefit from learning from the VA’s approach and experience as well.

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, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.