RFID plays an important role in all types of healthcare facilities, including hospitals, outpatient centers, doctor’s offices, long-term care facilities, urgent care offices, labs, testing facilities, and more. It is critical for these companies to be able to manage and track a of variety items needed for daily operation, which is greatly exacerbated during perilous times, such as during a pandemic. The groupings below show different types of items that must be efficiently and effectively managed in healthcare facilities:
• Lab/Hospital Assets and Equipment
• Reusable Lab/Hospital Equipment
• Unique Samples
Personnel Data Managed:
• Sanitizing Procedures
Below is a general overview of why the management of these assets and data is imperative and how RFID can be implemented as a solution.
Lab/Hospital Equipment – Asset Tracking
• Continuous Use Equipment (Microscopes, Sample Holders, Centrifuges, Ventilators)
• Mobile Collection Equipment (Coolers, Collection Trays, Mobile Workstations)
In large hospitals or crowded labs, assets of all sizes can be misplaced, lost, or stolen. These assets are often moved to other floors, zones/areas, or individual rooms for specific use cases or treatment. Any asset that can be moved in a facility should be properly managed, especially high value items or pieces of equipment such as microscopes and ventilators.
The basic principle behind asset tracking in most facilities is creating crystal clear visibility into the location, or last read location of important assets. Creating this visibility for owners and employees of these facilities saves employers money and potentially saves lives. In addition, business intelligence can be derived from read data collected from these assets, such as each asset’s amount of use.
RFID Asset tracking hardware can be setup differently depending on each facility’s’ size, requirements, infrastructure, environment, and preferred level of granularity. Some facilities could have RFID hardware mounted to the ceiling of each room that provides a real-time location for each asset, while other facilities may setup RFID equipment in portals at major doorways or zones that provides a ‘last read’ location for each asset. As long as a zone isn’t too large, assets can be narrowed down to a room or group of rooms. At that point, a handheld RFID reader can be used to locate an asset within centimeters of accuracy.
Reusable Lab/Hospital Equipment – High Temperature Asset Tracking, Asset Identification
• Washable Equipment (Beakers, Test Tubes, Cylinders)
• Reusable Safety Equipment (Face Shields, Goggles, Aprons)
• Sterilized Equipment (Knives, Scalpels, Tweezers)
High Temperature Asset Tracking
Assets in healthcare facility that must be washed, disinfected, sanitized, or run through an autoclave should be tracked in order to lower a facility’s operating cost. Not properly managing these reusable assets can result in high operating costs due to the constant replacement costs associated with losing reusable items. The reason that these assets are tracked differently than other major assets is the heat and water involved in most sanitation or cleaning processes, which can exceed 250° or 300° F. Most RFID tags are not waterproof or manufactured to withstand extreme heat.
Not only does these items need RFID tags that can withstand the cleaning process, but also tags that are ideal for the item’s size, shape, and material. If careful consideration is not used when choosing an RFID tag, the addition of an RFID tag may cause the item to become bulkier and interfere with its use or with a pre-existing process. In the medical field, these types of assets are shaped and created a certain way for a desired purpose, and if the RFID tag interferes with the item’s purpose, it is essentially rendering the item useless.
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Asset Identification - Real-World Example
A new RFID application for reusable lab/hospital equipment was implemented as a feature in a pre-existing inventory management solution called “Kit Check”. This Cloud-based, RFID inventory management application is a solution for lost or stolen medications in healthcare facilities. Kit Check uses RFID-enabled carts, cabinets, and workstations to keep inventory of tagged medication trays. Because of COVID-19, this company has successfully added a new feature which provides digital indication to whether a medication tray has been sanitized before reuse.
This optional feature tracks the sanitization process for each individual medication tray in order to eliminate spreading germs between uses. “As our customers continue to feel the impact of COVID-19, we’re committed to listening to their needs and providing agile solutions such as ensuring medication trays are cleaned and sterilized,” said Kevin MacDonald, Kit Check co-founder and CEO.
Consumables – Shipment Verification, Authentication, Inventory Management
• Boxes of One-Use Certified Safety Gear/PPE (Face Masks, Gloves, Gowns)
• Boxes of One-Use Certified Sample Kits (Certified Kits to take Customer Samples)
• Boxes of One-Use Certified Testing Supplies (Q-Tips, Tissues, Syringes, Needles)
Because of mandates set by Walmart and the Department of Defense (DoD), RFID shipment verification, also called order verification, is an extremely popular RFID application. Shipment verification involves tagging product shipments with specially encoded RFID tags. When these tags are read upon shipment arrival, the recipient is able to read the tag with an RFID reader, and with the aid of software, the reader will display specific information relating to the order and contents of the shipment.
The use of RFID shipment verification could be game-changing for companies that receive a large number of shipments per day. The ability to identify the contents of a shipment without opening individual boxes reduces manual labor as well as the chance of the shipment being misplaced after being received.
Manufacturers and retail companies determine an Identification Scheme that works for both companies, and then each tag’s EPC number is encoded in compliance with that scheme and includes data that can represent information like types of items, quantities of items, manufacturers, order information, and receiving department.
Thousands of consumables like face masks and gloves are used daily, especially during COVID-19, which correlates to healthcare facilities constantly receiving new shipments to keep up with demand. If a shipment of consumables is lost, one-use items must be reused, which can affect the well-being and lives of staff members and patients. This is also true if a shipment of consumables is received having been improperly managed, resulting in the products being held or sent to the wrong area. Healthcare facilities rely on these one-use items and must have an efficient and effective way to handle shipments of critical inventory to keep patients and staff safe.
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Authentication - Manufacturing Level
An issue that has been amplified due to the pandemic is individuals, businesses, and healthcare facilities receiving counterfeit items like face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, PPE, and even respirators. Lawsuits are popping up across the world aimed at manufacturers trying to profit off the pandemic by producing low quality replicas and then marketing and selling these items as authentic, certified, high quality merchandise.
In order to combat counterfeiting, RFID tags can be embedded in individual high-cost items like ventilators or placed on packaging for consumables. Other industries across the world use UHF or NFC tags to verify an item’s authenticity, for example, designer handbags, high quality alcohol, and pharmaceutical products.
Businesses and individual customers who purchase these items can then locate the tag and use a custom app on a smartphone to read and authenticate the product or reach out to the company to ensure that the products/items are authentic.
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In order to keep track of inventory levels, RFID tags can be attached to individual boxes of consumables. Inventory tracking of consumables with RFID can enable:
• 99 – 100% Accurate stock levels
• Reduction in time to count inventory to seconds
• Reduction in manual labor time counting inventory
• Elimination of human error
• Notifications when item stock levels are running low
• Suggested reallocation of items in facilities with multiple stock rooms
When a shipment arrives with consumables for inventory, each box can be tagged with an RFID tag, read by a handheld RFID reader and associated with that inventory item’s information, and placed in Receiving. The inventory items can then be routed to specific inventory rooms that are outfitted with RFID systems. Once an item enters a room for the first time, software can be used to check that item into inventory, then when the item leaves the room, the software can then deduct the item from inventory.
Depending on the facilities’ preferences, hardware can be set up simply to detect when items enter or leave the room or to take real-time inventory of the entire room in minute, hourly, or daily intervals with software. Decreased time between inventory scans means more reads which equates to more data. This data can be used to provide business intelligence such as the rate at which consumable items are being used, as well as the rate at which different floors use specific items. Predicting stock levels then becomes a much more efficient process, which leads to these items always being available.
If employee badges include RFID tags for access control, an employee’s badge information can be read upon entry in an inventory room. When an employee’s badge is read and then an inventory item is missing from a room, the RFID inventory system can use this information to create a log of which employee removed which item. This can be important to determine overuse or inventory theft within a facility.
Unique Samples – Identification, Inventory Management, Authentication
• Customer Test Samples
• Disease Samples
• Vaccine Samples
• Medicine (Vials, IV Bags, Bottles)
All medical samples such as collection samples, disease samples, vaccine samples, and medications must be uniquely identified. Labs that collect and use samples for testing or diagnosis often have hundreds or more unique samples on hand at any given time. If these samples are not able to be identified correctly and patients are given the wrong results, patients could be misdiagnosed and mistreated, resulting in the lab being shut down, patient illnesses, and possibly death.
Without RFID, samples and medications are identified with printed or handwritten labels. These labels are prone to human error due to small print, smudged ink, or possible mislabeling. Not only can RFID labels help identify each vial digitally, but RFID handheld readers can be used to find a specific sample in a large group, a key advantage that printed labels and barcodes cannot provide.
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Healthcare facilities have multiple inventory rooms and cabinets filled with medications that must be kept fully stocked. In order to keep track of inventory, stock levels are taken daily or weekly via a manual inventory count which could take hours depending on the size of the facility.
Utilizing RFID technology can help a facility reduce manual inventory counts to only taking a matter of minutes to complete and can sometimes even eliminate the process altogether. RFID smart cabinets, shelves, and refrigerators are ideal for keeping near real-time inventory and can restrict entry to only authorized personnel. Each time an RFID smart cabinet or refrigerator is opened, not only does the enclosure capture and record what was taken, but it also captures who removed the item, which can be ideal in large facilities.
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Counterfeit medications or vaccines are a big problem in the healthcare industry that can be thwarted using RFID technology. NFC RFID is commonly used to authenticate items like designer handbags, high-value wine, and car keys. NFC tags can be placed on boxes of medication or individual vials and can be authenticated upon arrival using an app on a smartphone or via an NFC reader.
Now that we are aware of how RFID is helping identify, authenticate, manage inventory, and track assets, how can RFID help personnel in healthcare facilities?
Sanitizing Procedures – Identification & Gathering Data
• Personnel Handwashing
• Personnel Sanitizing
• Personnel Disease Exposure
Identification + Gathering Data - Real World Example
Identifying personnel is the first step in many RFID applications like attendee tracking, access control, and event management. In some healthcare facilities, RFID is being used to gather employee data as it pertains to handwashing and sanitizing.
In this application, RFID lanyards worn by employees are read by small, RFID readers embedded in soap dispensers and hand sanitizing stations. Each time an employee’s RFID tag is within a certain range, their RFID tag is read via the RFID reader and the employee’s information is sent to the connected RFID software. The software records each read as well as the timestamp, and each station’s unique information. All that data can be sorted, compiled, and sent to supervisors or employees in order to increase hygiene awareness. Employee awareness of hand washing and sanitizing data records encourages employees to increase or maintain proper hygiene habits.
In addition to RFID-enabled hand sanitizing stations, another new application in healthcare facilities is an RFID application that tracks COVID-19 exposure.
In some healthcare facilities, systems are already in place that use UHF RFID alone, or a combination of UHF RFID and another technology like Bluetooth, Ultrasound, or Ultra-Wideband in order to manage inventory and track assets; one such system is created by a company called SwipeSense.
SwipeSense has taken their asset management and hand hygiene tracking platform to a new level by adding a new feature, real-time personnel tracking. Similar to how the company tracks assets, this new addition “virtually maps and tracks” employees throughout their workday for one specific, pandemic-related purpose. Each staff member wears a new tag/badge that clips onto their person that tracks their movement throughout a facility. When a patient or staff member has tested positive for COVID-19 the platform then pulls historical records of each employees’ daily movement to determine if any contact was made with the infected person. If employees have been exposed, they are then requested to isolate and take tests in order to prevent the spread throughout the hospital.
One hospital that agreed to use the new badges, Edward-Elmhurst, had 3,600 employees participate, and in combination with SwipeSense’s hand hygiene feature, were able to lessen staff infection from 17% in March 2020, to less than 1% in June 2020.
Comment below if you know of additional RFID applications in healthcare, and to read more about RFID in healthcare, check out the links below!