Prof Akhil Chandra
Academic Head, Logistics and Supply Chain
Institute of Logistics and Aviation Management (ILAM)
Indian Clinical Research Institute (ICRI)

RFID applications can provide significant benefits to the healthcare industry by ensuring patient safety and improving supply chain efficiency

The need to implement radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is now widely accepted by hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the world owing to the huge rewards it offers. The pilot tests are being conducted and it is already a well known fact that the applications of RFID shall bring far reaching effects in the healthcare segment. 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 technology makes such tracking and identification processes fast and smooth. Proper protocols and the use of RFID technology could prevent such outbreaks by ensuring that the instruments are properly tracked and classified.

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, reduce medical errors, and cut costs, thereby improving efficiency.

The applications are plenty and can be broadly summarised as patient tracking and identification, asset and equipment management and tracking, reducing drug and blood administration errors and making newborns more secure. 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 nanosensor technology to remotely monitor patients via implant, providing inventory control, and preventing theft. A popular and vital application of RFID is to track surgical sponges to ensure they are not inadvertently left inside patients. And many hospitals are now tracking patients to ensure the right patient is given the proper care. These 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 the hospitals’ ability to performe scheduled maintenance.

RFID enables healthcare facilities improve overall safety and operational efficiency because it operates without line-of-sight, while providing read and write capabilities for dynamic item tracking

Technology update

RFID is a wireless technology working on UHF range of frequencies. 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. It consists of a computer system and associated software displaying information about goods like country of origin, description, expiry date, destination, handling details, etc. 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 cattles and pets and as such are not a new invention. However during the last few years plans encompassing entire value chain using RFID tags right from procurement of material up 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 logistics 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 few cents. The tags are divided in two parts viz active and passive. Active tags can usually be complemented with new information as they proceed in the supply chain. Whereas, passive tags are for one time use and only send data which is stored in them initially. A passive tag draws energy from the reader whereas an active tag has its own battery and draws power from there. Read – write tags can be erased and can be used many times along with the ability to rewrite the data. WalMart made the use of RFID technology mandatory by its top 100 suppliers at the case level.

The RFID benefits

RFID technology makes it possible to read large number of items simultaneously. The process is automatic and does not involve manual intervention.The devices are always on and ready to read. Code reading does not require a visual line of sight so it can take place even through the side of truck without unloading.Tags can contain large amount of information.

RFID is now generating significant interest in the marketplace because of its robust application capabilities. RFID enables healthcare facilities improve overall safety and operational efficiency because it operates without line-of-sight, while providing read/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.

Health applications

Patient Tracking: Patient identification and location assistance are often needed to ensure patient safety when urgent medical attention is needed. Patient tags with RFID chips will meet this need.

Product Tracking: Hospitals currently have to track health hazardous radioactive isotopes throughout the facility from storage to transport and then from administration to disposal. RFID tags and readers can automate these tasks thereby saving time and resources. Active RFID tags with read/write capabilities can be used to detect seal integrity for containers and individual packages. The tag can record the time and duration of seal loss, allowing even problems that occur mid-shipment to be detected. Asset tracking by RFID thus can minimise thefts and losses, thereby increasing return on investments. Due to RFID tags being read in automated operation without requiring manual intervention, unattended and constant tracking is provided by the well designed RFID systems.

Inventory Management: Large amou-nts of inventory needs to be managed in hospital operating rooms. RFID technology can provide an accurate account of both official and unofficial inventory levels.

Drug Counterfeiting: Pharmaceutical companies, distributors, and hospitals need technology to deter drug counterfeiting. According to the World Health Organisation, between 5-8 percent of global pharmaceuticals are counterfeit. While in some countries this percentage may still go higher ranging between 25-40 percent. The losses reported are around USD 2 billion per year due to counterfeit drugs. Counterfeit drugs adversely affect people’s lives by preventing patients from receiving needed medication and in countries like India, many patients fall prey to it due to its low cost. Fortunately, RFID tags can help detect products that are, counterfeit or fake, tampered with, adulterated or substituted expired.

Clinical Trials: As new drugs go through the clinical trial phase, RFID technology is used for accurately tracking patient usage. In fact it improves the tracking of drug usage throughout the clinical-phase testing protocols.

Medical Device and Asset Tracking: RFID has a strong application potential with medical device companies. Medical device companies need better control on consignment with hospitals because returns can occur more than 50 percent of the time. RFID technology that improves visibility into returns could enable faster redeployment since the company would know sooner when an unused product could be returned.

RFID also helps pharmaceutical companies and retailers to improve their supply chains, resulting in reduction of cost and improvement in efficiency.

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 WalMart 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 WalMart, Target, Tesco, Metro, and Albertsons and by government departments like US Defence.

Indian scenario

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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Related October 2010