Use RFID to Put the Patient First

By Mark Roberti

Many hospitals are evaluating RFID to improve asset management, but they should also consider improving the way they treat and manage patients.


Last week, we finalized arrangements for our next RFID in Health Care event, which will be held Jan. 22, 2009, at the Rio All Suite Hotel in Las Vegas. The event will be co-located with the third annual Leadership Summit on Healthcare Supply Chain Management, produced by World Congress. The event took on a special meaning for me because my mother, who is 83 years old, spent last week in a hospital. She’s doing fine now, but I can’t say the same for the hospital.

My normally lucid mom seemed disoriented last weekend. On Monday, she didn’t seem any better, so my sister took her to the emergency room on Tuesday. They spent eight hours in the ER, while my mother underwent a series of tests. And in all that time, she had nothing to eat. My sister left at 10 p.m. because they said they were going to keep mom overnight for observation. My mother didn’t get moved into a room until 2 a.m., however.

It’s supposed to be health care—not health neglect.

I know running a hospital is difficult, and that the ER is particularly challenging because there’s no way of knowing how many people will come through on a given day, nor what resources will be required. But it made me think that maybe RFID could be utilized in a hospital for a good deal more than just tracking assets and protecting infants from abduction. What if the technology were employed to improve the quality of care?

Look, all that most patients really want is a little information every now and then, and to know that they haven’t been forgotten. So here’s my idea—and if any vendor likes it, feel free to patent it: create wristbands with active and passive RFID transponders. The passive tag would be used for proximity reading and identifying patients, and the active tag would have two buttons attached to it. One would be a call button, so no matter where patients were located—in a bathroom, lounge or hallway, for instance—they could press it to signal the need for help and nurses would know where to locate them. The other button would be for nurses and doctors to push once they’d visited the patient.

What’s more, hospitals could establish rules regarding how long a patient could be left alone before the system would alert the nurses’ station. So my mother would come into the ER and be provided with a wristband. She’d wait for 30 minutes, during which time no one would yet be able to see her. An alert would thus flash on a computer screen at the nurses’ station, and continue flashing until someone visited my mother—even if it was just to say “the doctor is dealing with a life-and-death situation and won’t be able to see you for a while”—and pressed the button.

Rules could be set up to determine how long a patient would remain in a particular location (some systems already do this). If my mother waited more than 20 minutes for an X-ray, for example, an alert would flash on someone’s screen. And if she was in the ER for more than 30 minutes waiting for a room, an alert would flash as well.

A room might not be available, but at least someone would visit her and say: “Mrs. Roberti, we’re sorry but your room isn’t available yet.” And a half hour later, a nurse would be alerted to come by and say, “Mrs. Roberti, how are you feeling. Did you get anything to eat? We’re still working on your room.” After each visit, the nurse would push a button and the system would know that the patient had been contacted by someone on the hospital staff.

It’s understandable that nurses and doctors get busy, and that resources are limited, but I think the system I’m describing would go a long way toward making patients feel less anxiety during their ER visits. Tagging assets will save hospitals money and deliver better service to patients—but being in a hospital can be a frightening experience. If we could use RFID to remind employees to reassure patients they’re being looked after, it would go far toward helping make them people feel better.