What's The Frequency, Doc? | RFID Tracking in Healthcare

Will RFID become the new UPC in hospitals?

Although patients being forced to wear RFID tags is probably a long way off, hospitals are increasingly employing the technology in myriad ways — from putting RFID bracelets on staff’s wrists for monitoring hand washing to affixing RFID tags in freezers and cabinets that store pharmaceuticals. For any luddites in the medical profession not riding the RFID train, don’t turn in your scrubs just yet. A survey by HIMSS Analytics, cited by Healthcare IT News, found that most (79.95 %) of hospitals still aren’t employing RFID for asset tracking, and even more (92.84 %) forgo the use of real-time locating systems. The enthusiasm for the technology, according to the study, appears to be faint. Yet, most technologies experience a learning or enthusiasm curve, even a bump. And nothing’s stopping the up-and-comers in this space, especially those supported by generous financial backers, including doctors.

Tracking the supply chain

Michael Lucas is CEO of Frequentz, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based provider of track and trace technology to the medical and pharmaceutical industry. He tells RFIDinsider that this type of technology, which “leverages real-time data, can immediately identify outliers in product distribution, quality and the ‘norm’.” So, by tracking where in the supply chain a product lies, any “potential vulnerability” can be rooted out. The outliers or contaminators can be immediately targeted; resulting in, say, a company pulling the drug out of distribution or manufacturing and preventing patient consumption. “This [track and trace process] can also prevent recalls and the business costs associated with recalls,” Lucas shares, ensuring uncontaminated inventory isn’t wasted and the “brand” isn’t tarnished by unnecessary recalls. Preventing recalls isn’t just important for the bottom line or the consumer; it could be critical. In the case of implants, for example, a faulty device immediately located via track and trace technology could determine whether the patient lives or dies.

Cleanliness is next to your wrist

Seth Freedman, president of IntelligentM, says they sell bracelets outfitted with RFID inlays to hospitals. The purpose is not to make nurses more fashionable, but to ensure that hand washing, which he says is already well regulated in hospitals, is monitored correctly. In its company literature and talking points, IntelligentM cites some alarming statistics: that one in 20 people admitted to an American hospital will acquire an infection they didn't have when they entered. And of these infections, 70 percent could have been reduced or eliminated by “healthcare workers following proper hand hygiene guidelines.” In the pilot phase only half a dozen hospitals and medical facilities have come on board, but so far the launch appears to be successful. “Right now there are six facilities that have contracted,” Freedman says. “The facilities are a combination of hospitals, assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities and an ambulatory surgery center.” The Sarasota, Fla-based startup didn’t commercialize the product— which includes a motion-sensitive microprocessor and Bluetooth enabled tag to indicate when a healthcare worker comes into the room — until April. 

This followed their two-and-a-half-year beta phase, which included clinical trials of the “pilot hardware units and beta software”. Then they “cobbled together” smart bands and tags and production software and rolled out to hospitals. Current plans extend not only to outside America, but to outside the healthcare industry. Restaurants are next, Freedman says, provided enough interest is drawn up. “We are having some high-level conversations [with restaurants],” Freedman says. “It’s a different bit of a business scenario. In a hospital it [wearing an RFID bracelet to monitor hand washing] is a regulatory issue, whereas in restaurants it is a liability issue.” Even so, the “next 24 months” is “definitely around the healthcare and restaurant space,” Freedman says.

Billions in savings for hospitals

Keith Hoffman, marketing director with Fitchburg, Wisc.’s Terso Solutions, is equally bullish on the technology. “The [RFID] technology has the ability to remove billions in costs from the medical and healthcare industry," he says. "On top of tremendous fiscal benefits, RFID continues to be about saving lives. What other technology can say that?” And even more revolutionary, Hoffman says, is the impact RFID can have on offsetting “soaring” healthcare costs. “According to the Global Healthcare Exchange (GHX), $5 billion worth of medical devices are wasted each year due to inefficient and disconnected manual processes, and lost or expired product,” he says. “What other industry would put up with losing billions of dollars’ worth of product each year?” That’s why, obviously, companies such as his and his competitors’ are hoping to stop the bloodletting. 

Frequentz’s ePedigree app, for example, is just one of the many solutions poised to offset the multi-billion dollar hit. By enabling compliance for the pharmaceutical industry, it maintains and shares information about product movement throughout a drug’s lifespan. By enabling retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers to generate an electronic “pedigree” the product can quickly move up the supply chain. After all, it’s all about money, and speed means cost savings. As one drug manufacturer said at a conference this reporter attended in Boston in 2008, “The faster we get a drug approved, the faster we make money.” Less crass, perhaps, is the focus on connecting dollar savings with saving lives. Hoffman points out that drugs, blood and other temperature and time-sensitive medical items including prosthetic devices are being tagged with RFID chips. This documents that Aunt Sally’s insulin or your grandmother’s hip won’t expire before it’s needed.

Wave of the future? Maybe

As exciting as all of this is, hospitals, nursing facilities and the like will remain difficult sells for the RFID industry, and at no time more than now. Whether and when the kinks of the Affordable Care Act – a.k.a. “Obamacare” – are worked out, a stream of increasingly hungry tech talent is prepared to leap into the RFID fold. Yet, in a market that has been historically volatile, it is not clear if or when it won't remain a hard sell.


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