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RFID EMI - Now what?

July 3, 2008
by anonymous
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The news of the JAMA article on electromagnetic interference (EMI) from radio frequency identification (RFID) made a big splash last week – hitting all of the leading industry newsletters and online news services, and citing specific numbers for EMI incidents. According to the study, 34 EMI incidents were found and reproducible; 22 were hazardous, 2 were significant and 10 were light with a median distance between reader and device of 30 cm (slightly less than one foot). When I read the news reports my first reaction was “why did it take two years to get published, especially with the technology changing so rapidly? Once I read the complete article several other questions came to mind --“What this means for hospitals using RFID or thinking about using RFID? What can hospitals do, what can vendors do, and what should the RFID technology community do?” From client work and research I have gained a decent amount of information about the technology and the vendors so I decided to do some sleuthing on vendor and industry reactions, and advice.

Reactions from the leading healthcare RTLS (real time location system) vendors were not surprising. Those that don’t use radio frequency but use another technology such as infrared or ultrasound were more than happy to cite the article’s statistics and encourage readers to eliminate the potential problem by using their product. Those using RFID technology that did post a response and gave quotes to the press cited that their technology was more advanced, not the same frequency or power usage as the ones in the article.

All of which did not give me the “warm fuzzies.” So I kept on digging. Checking the leading RFID journal – called RFID Journal – I found the article summary on the first page of its healthcare section with comments and advice. The advice was “you don’t know what will happen in your environment unless you test.” These were echoed by the read comments – putting the onus on the hospitals.

Searching further I landed on the website for the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM Global) and read a great article called “RFID in Healthcare: Risk or Benefit by Bert Moore.” The article pointed out RFID systems do conform to FCC and ETSI for emissions but many of the medical devices were designed before this regulation was in effect and could remain in service for some time – a reality for every hospital. The article concludes with taking a much broader look at the problem of RFID and EMI and solutions. Members of AIM will be working with the FDA to retest medical devices. The group has also offered to work with the vendor community to develop more comprehensive testing and guidelines for best practices.

The net – net, the article did stir up a lot of attention. You can dismiss it as old, out of date with limited testing, as some did. Or use it as a catalyst to improve the way the technology is used in healthcare. In the immediate future, hospitals will need to test RFID in their own settings. Let’s hope the offer for the FDA, manufacturers and AIM global to work together bears fruit in the future. Please share your comments and ideas for dealing with the issue at your hospital.

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