How RFID Is Being Used in Healthcare

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals used RFID technology to identify and locate staff who had been in contact with infected patients to help with containment. But that’s just one of the uses this tech may have in the health sector.
July 13, 2022
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Technology is changing the way professionals do their jobs in just about every industry. Healthcare is no exception, with databases, artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, robots, and the Internet of Things (IoT) providing assistance with various tasks. Thus, the doctor of a patient with high blood pressure may give the patient a device that tracks the condition and automatically sends the information back to them. Hospital administrators may deploy robots to perform simple tasks like taking temperatures and serving food for patients. 

Radio frequency identification (RFID) in healthcare is another technology that’s becoming more widespread. But how does RFID work in healthcare and what is RFID mainly used for? In the sections below we examine how RFID is used in hospitals, how it’s used to track patients, other uses for RFID, the benefits and challenges, and what’s next for RFID in healthcare settings. 

What Is RFID?

Before we dive into RFID in healthcare, let’s see what RFID is and how it works. RFID is a wireless technology that transfers data from an electronic tag through radio waves. It’s used for tracking and data collection. 

This technology has been used in many industries, including manufacturing, retail, and logistics, primarily for equipment identification and management. For example, a manufacturer can attach RFID tags to inventory to easily track how much of a specific raw material they have and know when to order more. 

RFID can be used in this way in healthcare settings as well, such as to track medication and equipment. But in this industry, its uses extend to tracking people as well. 

How Is RFID Used for Tracking Patients? 

“Tracking people” might sound a bit creepy but there are many reasons to track patients in a medical setting. For example, RFID tags can be attached to newborn babies to give new parents peace of mind, knowing that if the unthinkable — a mix-up or a kidnapping — happens, their child can be tracked and found, even when these scenarios are highly unlikely in the first place. The system issues an alarm if a child is moved out of a specific area or makes sure they are placed with the right mother, who wears a matching tag. 

Patient tracking is also useful for people who suffer from cognitive disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These patients tend to wander outside of their protected environments and become lost or disoriented, or even place themselves in danger. Similar to the babies, when these patients go beyond certain parameters, their family members or healthcare providers can be alerted so they can step in and prevent harm. 

Finally, the importance of giving the right care to patients being prepared for surgery can’t be overstated. RFID tags can help ensure healthcare providers offer the proper procedures at appropriate times. They can also help ensure the right surgery is done on each patient. 

How Is RFID Used in Hospitals? 

Aside from surgery preparation, RFID patient tracking systems can be used for regular care, to ensure, for example, that the proper medication is given to the right patient or to track symptoms. It can also be used for aftercare, such as when patients return home but still need to be monitored. During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals used RFID technology to identify and locate staff who had been in contact with infected patients to help with containment. 

As mentioned above, RFID technology can also be used to track inventory. For example, the supply of medicine at hospitals is constantly changing and must be tracked to ensure there is enough on hand to treat patients that need it. Consider the time and effort involved in the old-school approach of manually counting barcodes. RFID tags can eliminate this task and provide more accurate counts. 

The same process can be used for other medical supplies such as gauze, gloves, and vials. These single-use items can be tracked to ensure the right amount is always on hand. Clean, disinfected surgical equipment and tools are just as important as proper medication and other medical supplies. RFID tags can be used to identify which instruments are ready for use. 

The following video demonstrates these uses:

Challenges of RFID in Healthcare

Challenges of using RFID in healthcare include technological limitations, such as RFID transmissions causing electromagnetic interference (EMI) with biomedical devices. For example, EMI can cause medical equipment to switch off. This challenge is highly problematic in a medical environment, with the potential to decrease, rather than increase the quality of care. 

As with all digital technology, another challenge is data security, which is especially important in healthcare, where highly sensitive health information is being exchanged. Data privacy can be disrupted when hackers intercept data during transmission or find other ways to access it. 

RFID technology in healthcare also requires a big up-front financial investment to deploy, which can be a barrier for some medical facilities. The bigger the facility, the higher the cost when you factor in the tags and all the supporting technology needed to make them work, including middleware, databases, servers, and applications, not to mention training staff or hiring new people familiar with such systems. 

What’s Next for RFID in Healthcare

While RFID is already an exciting technology that is helping healthcare professionals in a variety of clinical settings deliver better care, it’s likely to improve in the coming years. Here are some developments to watch for:

  • RFID tags made to attach to a wider range of surfaces
  • RFID tags that are more sensitive to track things like temperature
  • RFID tags that provide greater accuracy in data delivery
  • Integration with other technologies such as IoT, cloud, and mobile apps
  • More precise tracking to be used on smaller objects
  • Use as a suitable substitute for barcoding
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