RFID tops the chart in medicine with vastly increased safety, efficiency and ROI. Mobile technology, has the potential to change healthcare. But the kind of wireless technology that could make the greatest impact is radio frequency identification (RFID).
RFID tops the chart in medicine with vastly
increased safety, efficiency and ROI
Atsushi Koshio is Director of Healthcare Business at medRF, a
wireless health strategy consultancy based in
Tokyo. He has a finger on
the pulse of Japan's healthcare industry, where
wireless solutions have flourished since the 1990s. Mobile
technology, he thinks, has the potential to change healthcare.
But the kind of wireless technology
that could make the greatest
impact, radio frequency identification (RFID), has not
been widely adopted.
"RFID is not just key to making better use of physical assets,"
says Koshio. ―It can have a substantial impact on
patient safety. It also has the
potential to produce a phenomenal
return on investment. But high
up front costs are still proving to
be a significant barrier to
entry, given the state of the economy.‖
Cost of entry for RFID may be high relative to other kinds of
wireless technology but so are returns, believes Jorma Lalla,
whose company Nordic ID has been busy optimizing RFID technology
for the past 15 years. The CEO
of the Salo, Finland-based RFID
mobile computer manufacturer
sees change on the horizon. "As the technology becomes
more ubiquitous, prices drop across the board - on tags,
readers and associated devices,‖ he says. "Other supply chains are
now using RFID end-to-end and I think that it won't be long
before we see wholesale adoption in the field of medicine.
Besides, it's a perfect fit with the criticality of
RFID key to trackable processes and
When human lives hang in the
balance, RFID may indeed be a
perfect fit. RFID tags have
the capacity to record new data almost indefinitely,
resulting in mountains of information attached to the item
or person in question, reducing the
possibility of error and obviating
the need to scan and connect to a
RFID tags can form part of a hospital wristband, a blood product
label, a biomedical implant or any medical device. They can be
tiny or large, immersible or flexible. Unlike barcodes, tags can
also be read from meters away, for example by an interrogator
mounted on the ceiling or beside a door.
Koshio and Lalla both agree that
affordability is the single largest
barrier in the health sector worldwide.
"But it's definitely where wireless use in healthcare will
end up,‖ says Koshio. "The advantages of RFID over any other
technology are just so overwhelming."
RFID increases blood tracking safety
To date, RFID has made some important inroads in various
healthcare niches around the world. At a blood
processing center on the Spanish
island of Mallorca, for example, RFID
has increased efficiency, safety and maximized the
use of a perishable resource.
Traditional, barcode-based blood product
tracking meant unpacking crates of
frozen blood bags and scanning or reading each bag
in turn - no small task with 30,000 bags packed 80 to a crate
in a deep freezer. A complicating
factor is that each bag was
tagged with up to six barcodes
as it passed through the stages of its journey.
These all needed to be scanned at each step.
RFID tags have shortcut the
process by storing all information -
including a record of ambient temperature
over time - on each bag's re-recordable RFID tag. Staff can quickly
find blood bags by scanning up to 400
bags per second and drilling down
to see all the information
associated with any bag. Because it used to take
so long to find the right bag in subarctic temperatures, staff
might have ended their search more
quickly by sending a 28-day old
bag of blood of the correct
type. Now the optimal bag - that
closest to expiry - is quickly found
and put to use, maximizing
a precious resource.
Hospital returns 186% on RFID
RFID recently hit the mainstream at a major California hospital
when the health centre became one of the first
in the U.S. to jump high
and clear over the RFID cost
barrier. In May 2010,
Mission Hospital, the largest
healthcare provider in Orange County,
rolled out a hybrid RFID/
infrared tracking system. Mike Kohler, the hospital's
Director of Material Management, has never looked back. He
pegs ROI to date at 186%.
"I don't know how a large medical centre can continue to
maintain all the different parameters they have to and be
state of the art without RFID," states Kohler. "It simplifies
processes, drives down costs and you can literally raise your
ability to care for patients."
The system implemented at Mission
Hospital is designed to improve logistics
by keeping track of medical devices. Each carries
an RFID tag that tracks whereabouts as well as parameters such
as last maintenance and/or cleaning. With a few keystrokes,
administrators and medical professionals can locate all
devices. This has boosted device utilization rates and
eliminated equipment rentals and hoarding, a
common problem in hospitals
worldwide. Equipment shrinkage has also
dropped from $150,000 per year to zero.
Financial returns are just the
The logistical and financial advantages are real, but Kohler
sees that as just the start. "Mission has a large trauma wing
with lots of specialized equipment, some of which is called
into use on other floors. When a trauma case comes in, it's
critical to have that equipment ready and waiting. Since it's
now tagged, we can get it back within a minute or two, ready for
the patient's arrival. And in the U.S. healthcare system,
that's a marketable strategic advantage."
Kohler is most excited about future plans to
capitalize on the greatest advantage of all: RFID's capacity
to improve patient care. The upcoming expansion of Mission's RFID
system will center on ways to reduce cross-contamination
-especially hand washing, the number one preventer of
cross-infection in hospital environments. Should they neglect to
wash their hands as they move in and out of patient rooms,
healthcare professionals will receive alerts on their mobile
Why is healthcare slow to adopt
Considering all the benefits and
the return on investment, the
question that many logistics professionals
are asking themselves is 'Why hasn't every hospital implemented
RFID already?' Part of the reason has to do with the global
healthcare industry's main objection to adopting
ICT solutions in general: business continuity. When the
ability to provide patient care is so crucial -no matter what
happens - you've got to be absolutely certain that you can trust
your systems. It's the reason why hospitals
have generators for back-up power: to
maintain the ability to provide
care, come hell or high water.
Paper may be hard to keep track
of, but historically it has
been very reliable.
"Now that ICT solutions have proven their resilience beyond
question in virtually every industry," observes Koshio, ―healthcare
is moving wholesale into wireless communication adoption. We're
at the cusp of a new era centered around RFID.‖ Kohler
couldn't agree more. "I believe that within 15 years,
virtually all healthcare processes will be electronically managed.
The human component will center more around stocking and
moving equipment, not managing it."
As exemplified by blood product tracking on Spain's Balearic
Islands, more than just equipment and people will
be managed: blood products, neural
implants. cardiac valves, bone
morphogenic proteins and tissue
implants all have expiration dates
and need to be stored at
the correct temperature and humidity. RFID can
help to better manage such precious resources, saving
money and lives.
"If it were simply a replacement for existing technology," says
Lalla, "RFID would continue its slow growth in the field of
healthcare. The fact is that RFID enables hospitals to do things
that they have never done before, like
enforcing hand washing and eliminating
hoarding and shrinkage. This
is huge. It won't be long before the global healthcare
sector wakes up to the tremendous advantages of RFID."