Move over bar codes! RFID (radio frequency identification) may be ready as a patient identification solution for hospitals and other healthcare settings. Advocates promote RFID as a way to improve patient safety without the problems common to manual or bar code patient ID systems.

Overseas, the U.S. Navy uses an RFID-based patient ID system, called “Smart Band”, to track the status and location of wounded soldiers, prisoners, refugees, and others arriving at the Navy’s Pensacola Fleet Hospital in Iraq. Here in the United States, 473-bed Jacobi Medical Center in New York City has begun using the Smart Band system in its two acute care departments. Smart Tag is manufactured by Precision Dynamics Corporation of San Fernando, California.

RFID uses electronic chips embedded on tags to transmit radio waves. Tags can be encrypted with any type of information. Tags attached to products, assets or medical records and or embedded in security cards and wristbands allow early adopters to track medical devices, drugs, and people, according to a report on RFID technology applications from the Health Industry Business Communications Council (HIBCC), an industry-sponsored nonprofit organization dedicated to developing standards to facilitate electronic data exchange among all facets of the healthcare industry.

The technology can also be used to encrypt wristbands with information critical to patient safety and for quality assurance purposes, encrypting medical supplies and drugs with information like lot numbers and expiration dates and test samples and other laboratory items with special instructions or critical data like the temperature for monitoring sensitive products like blood. It also could improve tracking of instruments for infection control, allowing RFID-enabled trays to be followed through sterilizing departments, and high-cost medical devices like defibrillators, pacemakers and prostheses.

Unlike conventional labeling technologies, such as barcodes, RFID tags have both read and write capabilities, can be read simultaneously rather one at a time, allow invisible and resistant marking for special applications like patient wristbands, require no line of sight to read them, and permit reading orientation directly through materials like cardboard boxes and cloth.

RFID technology, however, is viewed as an enhancement-rather than a replacement-for current labeling systems, as it has disadvantages. It is expensive because it is not yet plug-and-play. Reliability is an issue in large-scale implementations. Additionally, current RFID tags cannot withstand extreme heat without special housing and their reliability can be affected by humidity, metal surfaces and other environmental conditions. Additionally, there are interoperability issues because the technology uses different RFID standards. For example, no single reader exists that can read from the multiple frequencies used in different RFID technologies.

Dark Daily expects rapid advances in RFID technology. Phlebotomists and lab staff know that use of bar codes comes with its own set of headaches. Thus, as RFID performance improves and its cost to use declines, hospitals will have a motive to incorporate RFID solutions for patient identification. Clinical laboratories will be interested in using RFID solutions to track specimens. Such an application is already in use between the gastroenterology surgery suites and the histology laboratory at the Mayo Clinic.
– P. Kirk

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