RFID: a medical miracle?

Nov. 18, 2012

Atsushi Koshio is Director of Healthcare Business at medRF, a wireless health strategy consultancy based in Tokyo. He has a finger on the pulse of Japan’s healthcare industry, where wireless solutions have flourished since the 1990s. Mobile technology, he thinks, has the potential to change healthcare. But the kind of wireless technology that could make the greatest impact, radio frequency identification (RFID), has not been widely adopted.

Trackable processes and data

When human lives hang in the balance, RFID may indeed be a perfect fit. RFID tags have the capacity to record new data almost indefinitely, resulting in mountains of information attached to the item or person in question, reducing the possibility of error, and obviating the need to scan and connect to a remote database.

RFID tags can form part of a hospital wristband, a blood product label, a biomedical implant or any medical device. They can be tiny or large, immersible or flexible. Unlike barcodes, tags can also be read from meters away, for example by an interrogator mounted on the ceiling or beside a door.

Koshio and Jorma Lalla, CEO of Finland-based RFID mobile computer manufacturer Nordic ID, both agree that affordability is the largest barrier in the health sector worldwide. “But it’s definitely where wireless use in healthcare will end up,” says Koshio. “The advantages of RFID over any other technology are overwhelming.”

Safety and efficiency

To date, RFID has made some important inroads in various healthcare niches around the world. At a blood processing center on the Spanish island of Mallorca, for example, RFID has increased efficiency and safety and maximized the use of a perishable resource.

Traditional barcode-based blood product tracking meant unpacking crates of frozen blood bags and scanning or reading each bag in turn—no small task with 30,000 bags packed 80 to a crate in a deep freezer. A complicating factor was that each bag was tagged with up to six barcodes as it passed through the stages of its journey. These all needed to be scanned at each step.

RFID tags have short-cut the process by storing all information—including a record of ambient temperature over time—on each bag’s re-recordable RFID tag. Staff can quickly find blood bags by scanning up to 400 bags per second and drilling down to see all the information associated with any bag. Because it used to take so long to find the right bag in subarctic temperatures, staff might have ended their search more quickly by sending a 28-day- old bag of blood of the correct type. Now the optimal bag—that closest to expiration—is quickly found and put to use.


RFID recently hit the mainstream at a major California hospital when the health center became one of the first in the U.S. to jump high and clear over the RFID cost barrier. In May 2010, Mission Hospital, the largest healthcare provider in Orange County, rolled out a hybrid RFID/infrared tracking system. Mission Hospital pegs ROI (return on investment) to date at 186%.

The system implemented at Mission Hospital is designed to improve logistics by keeping track of medical devices. Each carries an RFID tag that tracks whereabouts as well as parameters such as last maintenance and/or cleaning. With a few keystrokes, administrators and medical professionals can locate all devices. This has boosted device utilization rates and eliminated equipment rentals and hoarding, a common problem in hospitals worldwide. Equipment shrinkage has also dropped from $150,000 per year to zero.

Improving patient care

The logistical and financial advantages are real, but that may be just the start. Mission has a large trauma wing with lots of specialized equipment, some of which are called into use on other floors. When a trauma case comes in, it’s critical to have that equipment ready and waiting. Since it’s now tagged, personnel can get it back within a minute or two, ready for the patient’s arrival. And in the U.S. healthcare system, that’s a marketable strategic advantage.

Mission plans to capitalize on what may be RFID’s greatest advantage: its capacity to improve patient care. The upcoming expansion of Mission’s RFID system will center on ways to reduce cross-contamination—e.g., hand washing, the number one preventer of cross-infection in hospital environments. Should healthcare professionals neglect to wash their hands as they move in and out of patient rooms, they will receive alerts on mobile devices.

Explaining slow adoption

Considering all the benefits, the question that many logistics professionals are asking themselves is “Why hasn’t every hospital implemented RFID already?” Part of the reason has to do with the healthcare industry’s main objection to adopting ICT (information and communication technology) solutions in general: business continuity. When the ability to provide patient care is so crucial, you’ve got to be absolutely certain that you can trust your systems. It’s the reason why hospitals have generators for back-up power: to maintain the capability to provide care, no matter what. Paper may be hard to keep track of, but historically it has been very reliable.

“Now that ICT solutions have proven their resilience in virtually every industry,” observes Koshio, “healthcare is moving wholesale into wireless communication adoption. We’re at the cusp of a new era centered around RFID.” Within 15 years, virtually all healthcare processes may be electronically managed. The human component may center more around stocking and moving equipment, not managing it.

As exemplified by blood product tracking on Spain’s Balearic Islands, more than just equipment and people will be managed: blood products, neural implants, cardiac valves, bone morphogenic proteins, and tissue implants all have expiration dates and need to be stored at the correct temperature and humidity. RFID can help to better manage such precious resources, saving money and lives.

“If it were simply a replacement for existing technology,” says Jorma Lalla, “RFID would continue its slow growth in the field of healthcare. The fact is that RFID enables hospitals to do things that they have never done before, like enforcing hand washing and eliminating hoarding and shrinkage. This is huge. It won’t be long before the global healthcare sector wakes up to the tremendous advantages of RFID.”

Mike Kohler is Director of Materials Management at Orange County, California’s Mission Hospital, a ministry of the St. Joseph Health System.