RFID Permeates Health Care

By Andrew Price

Researchers have developed a prototype for an RFID system that could prevent sudden infant death syndrome.

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While radio frequency identification slowly penetrates the retail/consumer packaged goods supply chain, the technology is making steady inroads within the health-care sector in diverse ways. Asset tracking is the most common and obvious application. Hospitals and clinics have a wide variety of high-value assets often needed in life-saving situations, and keeping better track of these assets improves utilization and reduces the cost of purchasing and maintaining additional equipment. Wayne Memorial Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., is using an RFID-based real-time location system from RadarFind to keep tabs on infusion pumps, diagnostics machines, blood warmers, computers on wheels, wheelchairs and other hardware. The hospital says it has saved more than $300,000 in expenses so far, thanks to the new RFID system.

Patient identification is another application that is on the rise. Some hospitals use RFID wristbands to identify patients not just in their rooms but as they move through a facility. Chang-Gung Memorial Hospital (CGMH) in Taipei, Taiwan, for example, is using passive RFID-enabled patient wristbands, from Precision Dynamics Corp., to correctly identify surgical patients and track their operations, to ensure they get the correct procedures and the proper medications at the right time.

One relatively new area where RFID could have an impact is on the health-care supply chain, which is notoriously fragmented and inefficient.

Each read-write tag has enough capacity to store a patient’s name, medical-record number, gender, age and doctor’s name; additional information can be stored on the tag if needed. The tag’s ID number is associated with patient records stored in the hospital’s back-end information system. Staff can read the data using HP iPAQ handheld pocket PCs, equipped with RFID interrogators. The system, which is 100 percent accurate in enabling patient identification, saves CGMH medical staff an average of 4.3 minutes per patient in performing patient identification and verification processes.

One relatively new area where RFID could have an impact is on the health-care supply chain, which is notoriously fragmented and inefficient. In April, Wal-Mart teamed up with the University of Arkansas and several Blue Cross Blue Shield organizations to create a research center that will study ways in which RFID and other types of information technology can be applied to the health-care industry’s procurement and distribution processes. Wal-Mart has pledged $1 million over the next five years to fund the Center for Innovation in Health Care Logistics, which will study how technology can be used to improve logistics within the four walls of a medical facility, as well as the entire supply chain that moves drugs, medical equipment and information to and from medical facilities.

In addition to these applications, researchers are looking at ways RFID could be deployed to monitor the health of patients. Researchers in the department of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) have developed a prototype for a system that could prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS—see Researchers Use RFID to Fight SIDS). The application involves using RFID-enabled sensors around the crib and on a mobile above the child to measure the carbon dioxide level a baby exhales. If the sensors stop detecting CO2, it means the baby is not breathing, so an alert is sent via an active RFID tag to a host system that can alert parents or nurses of a potential problem.

UTA researchers have also worked with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center to develop an RFID-based system that would be less intrusive than the system traditionally used to diagnose gastroesophageal acid reflux. Currently, doctors use a wired sensor that runs through the patient’s nostril and into the esophagus.

UTA’s electrical engineering department developed a 1-by-1-centimeter device consisting of a sensor and a passive 850 kHz RFID chip and antenna. The RFID-enabled sensor can be inserted into the esophagus and attached to the esophagus wall, where it transmits to an RFID interrogator worn like a necklace around the patient’s neck. The department is preparing to conduct tests on living animals this summer, and on humans by the fall.

Even more experimental is a concept for an RFID tag that could be affixed to pills and used to monitor the medicine when a pill is swallowed. Eastman Kodak Co. has patented such RFID tags. The patent application says the tags would be useful for verifying proper drug use, monitoring drug interactions, controlling dosage and even maintaining inventory control. It’s not clear whether such RFID-tagged pills will ever be popped, but clearly RFID is going to have a big impact throughout the health-care industry.