‘RFID Buzz’ Is a Double-Edged Sword

By Harold Boeck and Ygal Bendavid

Hospitals need to curtail their excitement about the technology's benefits and cure one problem at a time.


Soon after we spoke at a conference on RFID in health care, we received e-mail from an attendee who wrote: “There’s buzz around RFID at our hospital for a variety of applications. We are moving forward with some of these initiatives, focusing on instrument traceability, inventory management, and equipment/patient/employee tracking.”

While we were glad the hospital had some RFID initiatives in the works, its approach had the classic signs of a project that was destined to go awry. In our response, we asked if the hospital had identified its biggest process inefficiencies and how RFID could help resolve them. Our mail was met with radio silence!

A few weeks later, we received a message from one of the attendee’s colleagues asking if we had any thoughts on where he “might be able to find UHF RFID tags with switches.” We replied that this was an unusual request and suggested that, prior to designing a custom system, he might want to explore the various RFID solutions on the market for hospitals. This mail, too, was met with radio silence!

We’ve seen these symptoms at other hospitals. As managers in different departments hear about how other hospitals are using the technology to save money or improve patient care, the RFID buzz gets louder, hospital administrators approve a pilot project and then the money, time and effort are squandered on an ill-conceived plan.

It’s easy to understand why this happens. Hospitals face a lot of problems RFID can help solve, so it’s tempting to dive in and tackle them all at once. But while the technology has become more reliable and easier to implement, there are no shortcuts when it comes to planning an RFID deployment.

Hospitals must first form a multidisciplinary team, with representatives from numerous departments including surgical, nursing, pharmacy, engineering and operations. Team members will need to identify many project opportunities, but they must then build a business case for each proposed project, documenting current process inefficiencies and how RFID will be used to address them, as well as the projected return on investment. Then they can assess risk and value to prioritize the projects. This structured, holistic approach, known as project portfolio management (PPM), will enable the hospital to maximize the value of its RFID initiative.

Finally, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of education. Learning about RFID technology and the hospital-specific solutions available will enable hospital administrators to decide which system to deploy—there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. What’s more, administrators will develop an understanding of how to build on that system to address many other problems.

Harold Boeck and Ygal Bendavid are professors in the school of management at the Université du Québec á Montréal, and members of RFID Academia‘s research board.