July 2007

RFID in Healthcare: The Emerging Enabler

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RFID has the potential to become a catalyst for new efficiencies and enhanced services for healthcare service providers. Hospitals and medical facilities seeking competitive advantage can make use of RFID to optimize their workflows, improve productivity, reduce operating costs, and provide better patient care. RFID could help prevent patient identity mix-ups, medication errors, and also reduce thefts of expensive mobile medical equipments.


The rapid advances in medical electronics have brought about a revolution in the healthcare industry. In the recent times, radio frequency identification (RFID) has received considerable attention within both healthcare and pharmaceutical industries due to its potential to efficiently track hospital inventory, mobile medical equipments, medications, patients and personnel as well. Also RFID systems are being increasingly considered as an alternative to the existing barcode technology. The purpose of an RFID system is to enable data on the identity of an object and wirelessly transmit it using radio waves. As with any emerging technology, the deployment of RFID too seems to be fraught with potential uncertainties, including privacy and security concerns. Internationally accepted standards, guidelines for RFID technology and practices, coupled with lower deployment costs might hold the key for the widespread acceptance of RFID applications in healthcare.

An Overview of RFID

RFID is a form of automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) technology that uses radio frequencies to transmit information and can be used to identify many types of objects. Every RFID system includes a radio frequency (RF) subsystem, composed of tags and readers. Each object that needs to be identified has a small RFID tag affixed to it or embedded within it. A RFID tag is a tiny radio device made of a microchip and an antenna, usually surrounded by some material. The tags are of two types, active and passive. Active RFID tags are larger, battery-powered, generally rewritable and more expensive, whereas passive tags are relatively small, inexpensive and operate using power from the RFID transceiver. While active RFID tags offer a much better identification range, and allow updating, passive tags have lower range and typically store read-only data. The tags have a unique identifier and may optionally hold additional information about the object. Devices known as RFID readers wirelessly communicate with the tags to identify the item connected to each tag and possibly read or update additional information stored on the tag.

This communication can occur without optical line of sight and over greater distances than other AIDC technologies. Passive RFID tags require manual scanning to capture the identification data whereas an active RFID tag does automatic scanning and transmits the data to RFID-enabled devices. RFID technologies support a wide range of applications including asset management, tracking, access control and automated payment.

RFID vs Barcode

Though RFID and barcodes are perceived to be competitive technologies, both seem to complement each other. The distinct advantages of RFID system over barcodes could be summarized as follows:

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