Evaluate tandem use of bar coding and RFID

Close examination reveals that bar coding and RFID
(radio-frequency identification) are not so much cross-generational
rivals as brothers in arms, helping to manage increasingly complex
information-tracking demands in today’s healthcare environment. While
bar-coding technology’s lower cost and straightforward implementation
make it ideal for a variety of healthcare auto-identification
applications, RFID’s flexibility — when implemented at the right
frequency and wattage to co-exist with medical devices — makes it a
reliable option for processes such as asset and patient tracking.
Healthcare organizations should evaluate the benefits of employing a
combination of both.

Bar-coding systems tend to cost less to implement and
maintain than RFID systems. In the case of applications such as
medication administration and specimen collection, RFID improves very
little on bar-coding systems’ capabilities. RFID’s ability to generate
simultaneous tag counts of multiple items in a particular area is
generally an advantage. In close quarters, when identifying unit-dose
medications at the point of care, an RFID reader can confirm the number
of medications that are in the room. It will not be able to
verify the specific location of each medication without close proximity
to the reader or without being surrounded by an antenna that would not
fit into a standard medication-administration process. As a result, a
line-of-sight check is essentially still required.

While the price of RFID chips is rapidly declining,
the economics of auto-identification dictate that bar codes are likely
to remain the technology of choice for applications involving high
volumes, such as patient identification and medication labeling. And,
when it comes to patient safety, bar-coding systems remain difficult to
beat in terms of cost-to-results ratio. In fact, a study conducted by
the U.S. Veteran’s Administration concluded that bar-code medication
administration reduced the incidence of medication errors by 86.2%. For
the foreseeable future, bar codes will remain a strong option for
medication safety and may be just as suitable for laboratory-specimen
tracking, medical-record indexing, radiology-film tracking, and employee

Although the associated costs of RFID systems continue to fall and organizations realize the potential gains, recent studies have raised some important considerations that hospitals should keep in mind.

The potential of RFID

In addition to the cost of RFID tags and readers,
organizations may also need to budget for upgrading wireless
infrastructures and purchasing the right middleware, as well as for the
costs associated with re-engineering business processes. Because of its
ability to read information at long distances, active RFID has proven
very useful as a way of tracking high-value objects such as mobile
medical equipment. RFID is also carving out a niche as a method of
tracking patients such as monitoring elderly patients.

Although the associated costs of RFID systems
continue to fall and organizations realize the potential gains, recent
studies have raised some important considerations that hospitals should
keep in mind. One study published in the Journal of the American
Medical Association
demonstrated that some RFID readers can, in
certain situations, interfere with medical equipment typically used in
critical-care settings. By engaging vendors that understand the
environment in which RFID equipment will be deployed and properly
integrating equipment to regulations and standards established by the
Food and Drug Administration, AIM Global (automatic identification and
data capture industry), and others, healthcare facilities can make great
strides toward realizing the efficiency and safety gains that result
from the use of RFID.

Looking ahead

An increasing number of healthcare providers are
using RFID to complement their existing bar-coding systems — a trend
that will likely continue well into the future. For example, medication
may be dispensed from an RFID-enabled cabinet where an RFID chip reads
what was taken and then updates the inventory, while the bar-coded
medication label is scanned by the nurse to ensure safe medication
administration at the bedside. So, will RFID leapfrog bar coding?
Probably not. It is likely that the two technologies will peacefully
coexist for some time. While bar coding is entrenched and growing, RFID
will undoubtedly gain momentum in certain targeted areas. It appears
that these “peer” technologies are going to be around for a while,
continuing to help hospitals maximize their benefits in terms of time
savings, accuracy, and patient safety.

Cristina De Martini is global practice leader in healthcare at Zebra Technologies (www.zebra.com) and a member of the HIMSS Auto-ID Task Force.