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When Technology Fits the Bill

February 17, 2011
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Considering the costs, benefits, and the existing infrastructure for RFID

There are plenty of potential applications for RFID in hospitals. Deciding where the technology makes the most sense requires taking into consideration the costs, benefits and the hospital’s existing infrastructure. One hospital that has spent considerable time and effort into looking at potential RFID applications is Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Paul Frisch, Ph.D., assistant attending, department of medical physics and chief, biomedical physics and engineering, cautions that hospitals should have a unified strategy when it comes to making decisions about deployment of technology. Without a unified strategy, hospitals risk of stratification based on applications only. This can result in a hospital being saddled with a very large set of hardware and processes that are very application specific. This can be costly in terms of dollars as well as time or workload to the staff. Nurses are already overburdened, and adding layers of technology unnecessarily adds to their stress, he says.

Frisch notes that RFID falls into two broad potential applications: inventory asset management and tracking; and process flow and workflow. Sloan-Kettering rolled out its first application in 2007 to help with its financial auditing process. As a research institution, the hospital gets a significant amount of funding, and there are various auditing processes associated with the grants. It uses RFID tags to track hardware purchases associated with the grants, he says.

From there it expanded to tracking a variety of equipment, including select devices in the ICU, to wheelchairs and stretchers, and all of its infusion pumps. Each piece of equipment is equipped with active (battery-enabled) RFID tags, which transmit the signals through the hospital’s extensive WiFi network, which encompasses the hospital and research center. “We are trying to capitalize on our existing infrastructure,” he says.

Reliance on the existing WiFi network is one reason why the hospital has moved forward primarily on active (versus passive) RFID tags. Nonetheless, the hospital is also investigating potential uses for passive RFID, (whose tags do not use a battery) for certain localized applications. One potential application for passive RFID is in supply chain, to ensure that all of the implements are present in a surgical kit before and after surgery. It currently uses passive RFID tags to track surgical sponge counts.

Frisch notes that Sloan-Kettering has been active looking at new and evolving technologies, as well as investigating how those technologies can be integration with the hospital’s processes. It has been far more conservative in actual deployments. Sloan-Kettering’s approach makes sense; technology is a wonderful thing, but the real payoff happens only when and if it is deployed correctly.

Stay tuned for more on RFID and barcoding in the March issue.