Reducing Health-Care Errors

According to a New York Times article, as many as 200,000 people a year are killed due to hospital mistakes. RFID can help remind staff members of tasks that must be performed, or alert them to potential problems.
Published: August 1, 2012

I came across an interesting article in The New York Times‘ editorial section today, written by Sanjay Gupta, the associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, and CNN‘s chief medical correspondent. In the article, titled “More Treatment, More Mistakes,” Gupta says it is impossible to know how many people die each year due to medical errors, but that “a reasonable estimate is that medical mistakes now kill around 200,000 Americans every year,” making it one of the leading causes of death in the country.

Gupta notes that mistakes can happen because hospitals are often frenetic places in which everyone is rushing to save a patient’s life. The more tests performed, he argues, the greater the number of errors. That’s actually the main point of the article, and I’ll leave it to the medical experts to debate that topic. But I think it is worth pointing out that radio frequency identification can do more than just identify and locate objects—it can also be used to reduce medical errors.

In June 2010, we reported that Princeton Baptist Medical Center, located in Birmingham, Ala., saw a 36 percent reduction in patient visit time resulting from a health-care acquired infection (HCAI) since the facility began employing an RFID-based hand-washing compliance system in February of that year. That equates to 125 fewer bed days over a few months in which patients were hospitalized for infections gained while receiving treatment at the hospital (see RFID-based Hand-Hygiene System Prevents Health-care Acquired Infections).

RFID can also be used to prevent objects, particularly surgical sponges, from being left behind in patients. Christopher C. Rupp, a gastrointestinal surgeon at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reviewed 2,961 cases in which sponges containing radio frequency tags were used, and found that the technology helped to recover 21 missing sponges, which otherwise would have remained within patients’ bodies.

A hospital in Saarbrücken, Germany, is employing RFID to track bags of blood, in order to record transfusions and ensure that patients receive the blood intended specifically for them (see German Clinic Uses RFID to Track Blood). Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has developed a system known as Time Temp Trac that allows staff members to track how long a blood cooler remains outside the blood bank. By utilizing the system for its 35 coolers, the hospital has been able to ensure that coolers do not end up lost, and workers receive updates when products are scheduled to be returned to the blood bank. This helps the facility ensure that it meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) temperature requirements for storage.

There are also opportunities to use RFID to ensure that surgical instruments have been sterilized prior to use, to prevent nurses from giving patients the wrong drugs, doctors operating on the wrong patients and so forth. The great thing about using RFID to prevent errors is that you can often utilize the same system to increase efficiencies. For example, the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center solution described above was added onto the real-time location system (RTLS) used to track assets.

RFID Journal will host its RFID in Health Care 2012 conference and exhibition on Sept. 6, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, in Massachusetts. The event is a great opportunity to learn about the many applications of RFID in the health-care sector, and how a system can both prevent medical errors and improve efficiencies.

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.