Are you ready for the NEXT wave of RFID ?

RFID ChipMost people have experienced the 1st wave of RFID technology without realizing it. Radio Frequency IDentification has been used by retail businesses to deter shoplifters and for inventory purposes for many years. RFID tags are what sound the store alarm when you walk out of a store with unpaid merchandise, and what identifies your car (and charges your account) when you drive through the expressway toll booths with your E-Z Pass. WalMart has mandated that suppliers affix RFID tags to all goods shipped to the behemoth for inventory and retail sales tracking all the way to the customer. But the brave new world of pervasive computing is bringing a tsunami that will soon wash over the entire health care system..

When paired with intelligent sensors and networked processing, these little chips can provide a dynamic data environment only limited by the imagination. The next RFID wave will involve tagging EVERYTHING, from toothbrushes and keys to medications and IV infusion pumps. And RFID tagging will include patients and individual hospital staff members ( including the patients, nurses and doctors) !

Imagine you are a nurse who needs to give a patient a critical medication, but the patient is not in his room, but somewhere else in the hospital… The ward clerk says the patient was taken to X-ray, but she’s not sure if the patient is still there, has been transferred to the MRI suite for additional studies, or is in the elevator on the way back to the floor. Wouldn’t it be nice to look at a screen in the nurse’s station and know instantly where (exactly) the patient is at this moment. Or what if the nurse urgently needs a certain type of IV infusion pump? Is there one in the stockroom, or if not, where is the closest one available ? RFID tracking of assets and patients may come to the rescue.

One company (of several) already deploying RFID based hospital tracking systems to address these issues is InfoLogix with their HealthTrax(tm) (click on Hospital Demo to see a quick overview of the system). A video of their system being used in a hospital emergency department can be seen by clicking here.

The technology has the potential to reduce medication errors by sounding an alert if the (RFID tagged) medication about to be given does not match the correct (RFID tagged) patient. An integrated system can also track patient, nurse and doctor interaction to record time and duration of contact and automatically log the care given. Documenting patient education, intake and output measurements, medication administration and progress with physical therapy is currently tedious and time consuming. With the evolution of networked RFID tracking systems, such chores could be completely automated (and less susceptible to error).

Patients going for surgery will be tagged at the appropriate surgical site so that verification can be automatic regarding the appropriate surgery, on the appropriate limb or organ and with the correct surgeon in the operating room. Alzheimer’s disease patients may have permanent RFID chips implanted for scanning in any Emergency Department, so that even if the patient or caregiver cannot relate the patient’s history or medications, the ED staff can quickly identify the patient and retrieve pertinent information from a secure online data bank.

While the potential of RFID use in healthcare sounds intriguing, something about all this also sounds a little disconcerting to those concerned about personal privacy and the possible misuse of the data collected. When networked systems record your every move, what should the limits be, and how will it be controlled (and by whom)?

At University of Washington in Seattle, a project to investigate issues related to personal tracking is underway in the Computer Science and Engineering Department. The RFID Ecosystem Project is being conducted in the new 85,000 square foot Paul G. Allen Center building. The researchers say the “central question (of the research) is in the balance between privacy and utility. Are there user-centered RFID applications that are truly useful? If so, how can they be designed to minimize loss of privacy? Finally, if these applications are indeed useful, does the utility outweigh the potential loss of privacy?”

Clearly there are no answers yet, but, like it or not, the tsunami of ubiquitous RFID is coming. Better get ready to sink or swim…

For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of the technology and the balance between privacy and utility, I would refer you to the RFID Ecosystem Project FAQ. *

* Disclaimer – As some may notice if they follow the UW links, I am related to one of the researchers in the project… which partially explains my interest in this subject. ;)

Links to some vendors and other related topics:

Hospital asset and patient tracking -

RFID and Quality assurance in healthcare ( some links may require registration to read)

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