Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, is the use of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data wirelessly from a tag attached to a person or object to a computer. Originally used to track the movements of cattle, through injectable tags, RFID tags are now used in factories to track products through the manufacturing process, for example, in automobile assembly lines, and to track consumer goods around the world, as well as by airlines to manage baggage. They have potential for use in shops: for example, RFID-tagged items would not need to be scanned individually, but could simply be passed through a single scanner, reducing queues considerably.
There are three main types of tags, passive, semi-passive and active. Passive tags are simply read by a reader, and have no internal source of power. Semi-passive and active tags have a battery to power the radio signal, so that they can transmit, rather than relying on the reader. They are obviously more expensive, but can be read further away, up to about 30 metres away, and can have additional batteries to boost the range even further.
Improving patient security
As the cost of the technology comes down, the use of RFID tags is inevitably spreading, and there are some innovative ways in which they are being used in healthcare. For example, the Hospital of Cotxeres, in Spain, working with Bioaccez Controls, based in Barcelona, Spain, has used RFID tags to improve the security of both its assets and its patients at a mental health facility.
The hospital management was keen that the new security solution should not have any obvious effect on visitors’ experience of the hospital, and should have minimal impact on the hospital buildings. However, the system needed to be in real time, and also be active when visitors were in the building. It also needed to be able to produce an automated audit trail.
The solution was to use two different kinds of tags, an active wristband with pushbutton tag for patients, and a DOMINO tag for equipment. There are 27 zones in the hospital, all with a controller linked to the central system. Patch antennae are used to define the detector zones, with the antennae hidden behind walls. Because of the radio frequency, this does not affect their detection, but it improves the ‘look’ of the system. There are also patches at emergency exits. The system uses Bioaccez’ Secure-Loc software, which allows tags, groups of tags, alarms, zones and types of tags to be identified and grouped separately. It also provides for visualisation of location of tags on a map, as well as real time tracking and alarm monitoring, and there is a scoreboard for statistics.
Bioaccez RFID technology is also being used in miniature wristbands for newborn babies in hospitals, to ensure that they are clearly identifiable and cannot be removed by anyone unauthorised.
Improving efficiency in pharmacy supplies
Other hospitals are using RFID tags to revolutionise drug supplies, especially for emergencies. The University of Maryland Medical Center is using an RFID system from Kit Check, and CaroMont Regional Medical Center is using similar technology, to stock emergency ‘crash carts’. These contain equipment and medication, and all the medication needs to be within expiry date. The drugs are all RFID-tagged, and each tray has another tag to list what it should contain (some are for allergic reactions, some for heart attacks and so on).
When a used tray is returned to the pharmacy, it used to take 20 minutes of pharmacist time to check all the medications, to make sure that the tray was restocked correctly and all the drugs were within date. Now, a pharmacist carries out a quick visual check and removes any open medications, before placing the tray in the Kit Check scanning station. This reads the tags in a couple of minutes and highlights which need to be replaced, and which are approaching expiry. This has saved huge amounts of time, and also improved patient safety because drugs are now always correct and within date.
There is little doubt that RFID technology in healthcare has the potential to improve efficiency and patient safety. Organisations such as the RFID in Healthcare Consortium are keen to spread the word about its potential and provide stories about how it has helped healthcare facilities. For example, the Consortium has just announced the judges for its latest competition, the 2014 Intelligent Hospitals Award, and opened the call for nominations for entries. It seems this is an area ‘ripe for development’.