November 2010

Too many positives to ignore

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Benefits include improved patient care and upkeep of medical assets, and also a potential to curb fake drugs menace

The need to implement RFID technology is now widely accepted by hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the world. The rewards are huge in terms of its vital applications like tracking patients and precious assets like diagnostic and surgical instruments and drugs, and in ensuring patients’ safety.

At times, during catastrophic situations like out-break of human version of mad cow disease, it is important to track the contaminated and infected equipments to avoid exposure to patients.

RFID makes such tracking and identification fast and smooth. Proper protocols and use of RFID could prevent such outbreaks by ensuring instruments are properly tracked and classified. This and other RFID applications can provide significant benefits to the healthcare industry to ensure patient safety and improve supply chain efficiency.

Multi-pronged benefits

RFID technology can greatly contribute to the healthcare industry with Wi-Fi and voice over IP (VoIP), creating a single information system that can track patients and hospital assets, improve patient safety, play a role in running clinical trials of drugs, manage critical care assets and hospital equipment, reduce counterfeiting of pharmaceutical products and medical errors, and cut costs to improve efficiency.

Simply put, these potential applications provide advantage to healthcare industry in terms of tagging patient wristbands with ID and care information, managing distribution of medications, coupling with nano sensor technology to remotely monitor patients via implant, provide inventory control, and prevent theft.

RFID-enabled systems tend to reduce the data-entry workload of nurses, and also let them spend more time caring for patients. Additionally, hospitals are tracking high-value assets, including wheel chairs, oxygen pumps and defibrillators. These systems reduce the time employees spend looking for assets, improve asset utilisation and enhance hospitals’ ability to perform scheduled maintenance.

RFID and its variants

RFID is a wireless technology working on ultra-high frequency (UHF) ranges. RFID system consists of transceiver equipped with an antenna, a tag and a reader acting as an intermediary between the identification and the background system consisting of computer system and associated software displaying the information about goods like country of origin, description, expiry date, destination, and handling details. Electronic product code is the key standard for RFID in retailing driven by EPC global which works in close collaboration with GSI.

RFID tags were earlier used for marking cattle and pets and as such are not a new technology. However, during the last few years, plans encompassing entire value chain using RFID tags right from procurement of material to the finished goods available on the shelves at the point of purchase for the customers have emerged. Tags make it possible to identify each logistic unit or even each individual product and track their way through the supply chain.

RFID tags are used in different shapes and sizes and their costs have been brought down to a few cents. The tags are divided in two parts-active &  passive.

Active tags can usually be complemented with new information as they proceed in the supply chain, while passive tags are for onetime use and only send data that is stored in them initially. A passive tag draws energy from the reader whereas an active tag has its own battery. Read-write tags can be erased and used many times along with the ability to rewrite the data. Wal-Mart made the use of RFID mandatory by its top 100 suppliers at the case level.

Benefits in healthcare

RFID is now generating significant interest in the marketplace because of its robust application capabilities. RFID enables healthcare facilities to improve overall safety and operational efficiency because it operates without line-of-sight while providing read and write capabilities for dynamic item tracking. Surgical instruments and other devices must be properly cleaned and packaged between uses. Tags on the instruments and readers on the sterilisation chambers and storage cabinets can validate proper cleaning and help locate needed instruments. Since medical devices are often mounted on portable carts, smart tags placed on the devices and readers installed in the doorways can enable personnel to quickly locate a crucial piece of equipment and immediately determine its fitness for use.

RFID technology helps in tracking movement of medicines and items through the supply chain of enterprises helping in reduction of costs and improvement in efficiency. The movement of goods starts right from supply of raw material from initial suppliers to manufacturing unit of such companies and then movement of finished goods to customers through distribution channels consisting of dealers, wholesalers and retailers. The transportation of material in cartons and pallets to warehouses takes place via ships, rail road, air and trucks. Companies like Wal-Mart have successfully used the RFID Technology and rose to become number one company in the world after beating big Conglomerates like K-Mart and Sears in their own game of retailing.

RFID technology has been used by major pharmaceutical companies and retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Tesco, Metro, and Albertsons and by government departments in countries like the US.

Adoption in India

In India, RFID will be used extensively across the country in near future. Apollo hospital uses RFID technology to speed checkups of the patients. As of now, the Department of Posts and Companies like BHEL have stated using RFID to track parcels. The awareness of RFID application is catching up and bar codes shall soon be replaced by far superior and potent technology like RFID with industries, utilities and service organisations like hospitals.

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