For decades now, RFID technology has been a game-changer in multiple domains. From industries like manufacturing and transport to operations like inventory control and supply chain, RFID has been a major factor in increasing efficiency and transparency.
The healthcare industry has not been untouched by this either. Over the last few years, healthcare RFID has proved to be of great use for many critical use cases in the medical domain.
What is RFID?
Remote Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology that uses electromagnetic fields to detect specific objects. RFID setup usually comprises three components – transmitter, receiver, and transponder. The RFID tags serve as transmitters of a radio signal, which is detected by the receiver.
RFID tags help track tagged objects, which could then be adjusted for a variety of use cases. RFID tags could be passive (operated using radio waves; smaller range) and active (operated using batteries; longer range).
How RFID Helps Patients
The healthcare industry was one of the early adopters of the RFID technology. Initially, in the early 2000s, RFID tags were mostly used for inventory management and equipment tracking. However, soon radio frequency identification in healthcare expanded to tracking at-risk patients within the hospital premises.
Here are the various ways healthcare RFID has improved patient safety and hospital workflow:
1. Patient ID
Perhaps the most meaningful impact of RFID in healthcare has been in patient identification. Misidentification of patients – particularly those who were unable to identify themselves – has been a major issue in the healthcare domain. These include infants, elderly patients suffering from mental issues, or patients otherwise incapable of communicating their identity. Patient misidentification has also been a problem when patients are incapacitated before a surgical operation, and sometimes the wrong patient has been operated upon.
Using RFID-equipped applications, healthcare professionals could positively identify the patient. In most cases, passive RFID tags are used that could be scanned using mobile apps or at fixed points like ward entrances. The tags contain all the necessary information regarding the person – including their name, blood group, emergency contacts, and allergies.
2. Patient Tracking
Once admitted, the hospital has to keep track of the patients at all times. Despite the presence of staff and security, it is very hard for the hospital to keep track of all the patients at all times. Oversights in patient tracking can lead to scenarios where infants could be taken from their wards by unauthorized personnel, or patients with mental health issues could wander off from the hospital premises.
The presence of RFID tags allows hospitals to keep track of the patients at all times. Passive tags, installed at the doors of wards and the hospital premises, ensure that the patients do not leave their designated place without approval. In case such an event occurs, the receivers could be set up to trigger an alarm to alert the hospital staff. RFID patient tracking is also useful in many other scenarios, like keeping track of everyone who came in contact with an infectious patient or making the patient discharge process a lot more efficient.
3. Patient Monitoring
One of the core responsibilities of any healthcare facility is to supervise and monitor their patients at all times. Despite the best of their abilities, hospitals often find themselves short-staffed to monitor every patient under their care. A critical situation could arise so rapidly that even a moment’s oversight can lead to dire consequences.
However, similar to the above scenario, RFID tags have emerged as a massive boon for the hospital staff. The tags could be programmed to keep track of vital activities in a patient – body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, etc. Whenever any of these vitals go beyond the normal range, hospital staff could be alerted. Since the alarms are triggered instantaneously, it also saves precious time to act upon.
Even outside critical situations like these, monitoring via healthcare RFID tags could prove efficient for hospital management. Earlier, the hospital staff would need to manually visit each patient periodically to note their vital readings. However, with RFID tags, all these readings are tracked constantly and automatically. This saves the hospital staff a significant amount of time, which they could divert towards more important tasks.
Use Case 1: Infant Care Ward
A hospital has an Infant Care Ward that houses up to 50 infants. The infants are kept there right from the first hour of birth for the next 2-3 days until the mother can be discharged.
Earlier, hospitals used physical tags attached to the infants to identify them. However, this method had many loopholes. Since the tags were physical, they could be accidentally misplaced or intentionally removed/swapped. While generally only the hospital staff is allowed in the infant ward, unauthorized personnel could still enter and leave the room.
However, with the introduction of healthcare RFID tags, the hospital can track infants far more securely. The tags contain all necessary identification details for the babies. Since the tags are passive, they cannot be tampered with and require special equipment to be detached. Any attempt to leave the ward with a baby without proper authorization would trigger an alarm for the hospital staff. With the introduction of RFID tags, tracking newborns has become a lot more secure.
Use Case 2: Elderly Care Unit
A hospital has an Elderly Care Unit (ICU) to supervise long-term elderly patients. The unit has multiple wards to admit up to 100 patients; however, the hospital is short-staffed to give individual attention to everyone.
The unit has many patients suffering from mental health issues like dementia and schizophrenia. They are generally unaware of their actions and surroundings – as such, it would be a high-risk situation if they happened to leave their wards unsupervised. However, medical RFID tags allow the hospital staff to keep track of them at all times without individually attending to them. The tags provide their real-time location within the hospital 24/7. If they accidentally tried to leave the hospital premises, an alarm would be triggered at the entrance and alert the security staff to stop them.
The tags also allow the staff to monitor the vitals of the elderly patients and provide them with their medicines at the correct times. In case their vitals go outside the permitted range, the staff is alerted immediately to take care of them.
Other Uses of RFID
While RFID technology has improved the lives of patients by a considerable margin, it has also found utility in many other aspects of healthcare. Here are some other RFID applications in healthcare:
1. Equipment Tracking
Besides the staff, the medical equipment are the most critical component in any healthcare facility. Due to the nature of their requirements, these equipment have to be moved around in every ward across the hospital premises. Often, the staff is unable to locate the equipment they need at the time of requirement. This leads to a loss of time, which might be precious in emergency cases.
However, one of the earliest adoptions of RFID technology in healthcare was tagging medical equipment. This allows the hospital staff to monitor the equipment and devices in real time. In case of emergencies, the staff can immediately track where the necessary equipment is located. The tags also allow the authorities to schedule the usage of the equipment with better efficiency and planning.
2. Monitoring Supply Storage
Just like patients, RFID tags can also be a great help in inventory management and supply storage monitoring. Hospitals are generally stocked with a plethora of drugs and other inventory – not just for current patients, but also potential ones. Most of this inventory needs to be stored in a controlled environment, or else they risk getting spoiled or damaged.
With RFID tags, hospitals can keep a sharp focus on their inventory. The tags can convey the room temperature, humidity, pressure, etc. to the authorities in real-time, so even the smallest malfunction can be addressed immediately. Furthermore, the tags also help keep track of the inventory items, so the hospital is automatically alerted of items going out of stock.
Even beyond inventory management, RFID tags have proven useful in supply chain management. The equipment/drug providers can also equip their shipment with RFID tags, so the hospital is acutely aware of the replenishment lead time. The RFID tag data can also be analyzed further to recognize patterns in inventory usage and provide insights useful for inventory planning and/or cost-cutting.
Since the early 2000s, healthcare RFID technology has been a major boon to the healthcare domain. The seemingly simple solution has helped deal with a dozen different problems within hospitals. With time, the technology has proven its track record and is now getting widely adopted by hospitals across the world.
With time, as RFID technology improves further, we will see even more use cases in the healthcare domain. It is safe to assume that the RFID for healthcare technology has, and will continue to, improve the safety of patients and the efficiency of hospitals.