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A Healthy Dose of RFID

RFID could dramatically change the healthcare industry by improving the quality of patient care and boosting the efficiency of a largely paper-based industry.
By Samuel Greengard
Jan 01, 2004—The Iraqi desert might seem like the last place on Earth anyone would expect radio-frequency identification to make an impact, but the U.S. Navy has discovered that the technology is the perfect prescription for saving lives. While industry observers speculate about the future of RFID in commerce, the Navy’s Tactical Medical Coordination System, dubbed
TacMedCS, has already demonstrated the viability of the technology in medicine.

Using RFID wristbands on patients, as well as assorted tags and readers in treatment areas, the Navy’s 116-bed Fleet Hospital Three has marched into the 21st century. Patients, who range from U.S. military personnel to POWs and refugees, are fitted with wristbands and given unique ID numbers. When doctors and nurses make the rounds, they scan a patient’s bracelet to confirm his identity, pull up his electronic medical record, and verify they are providing the correct treatment and medication. The TacMedCS program also allows medics to tag and identify the wounded in the battlefield so soldiers can receive the proper treatment in the field and a hospital can prepare for their arrival.

The Navy began using the system when the Iraqi war began last March. Since then, it has improved the quality of care and ushered in a new era of accuracy and accountability. Military medical professionals provide state-of-the-art monitoring using RFID chips from Dallas-based Texas Instruments, smart bracelets from Precision Dynamics, located in San Fernando, Calif., and handheld readers from A.C.C. Systems, an RFID-equipment maker in Glen Head, N.Y. The Navy has subsequently begun testing the system at Fleet Hospital Pensacola, a mobile medical facility based in Florida. “The ability to keep important information with each patient and to track his or her whereabouts automatically have helped medical professionals…better manage patient care,” says the Navy’s chief hospital corpsman, Michael Stiney.

The Institute of Medicine, a Washington, D.C., think tank, estimates that as many as 98,000 people in the United States die each year due to medical errors and that the economic impact may reach as high as $29 billion annually. When the Veterans Health Administration tested Precision Dynamics’ wristband system in 2002 and 2003 throughout its 173 facilities, it reported an 86.2 percent reduction in medication errors. “It’s a way to automate an extremely complex process and reduce the incidence of human error,” says Sean Campbell, a partner in the RFID practice at IBM Business Consulting Services, in White Plains, N.Y.

Yet, despite such promising results, only about 2 to 3 percent of U.S. hospitals currently use the wristbands, according to Irwin Thall, manager for healthcare business development at Precision Dynamics. Most hospitals still use bar codes to track patients or handle the task manually. The bracelets are particularly helpful for monitoring patients who are asleep or those with conditions that make it difficult to use a bar code scanner. They also can help nurses keep track of newborn infants (so they aren’t kidnapped or accidently switched) and patients with Alzheimer’s disease (so they don’t wander off).
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