Picture: RFID wristbands are available for patients

RFID and Healthcare: is tagging good for health?

One day a tiny RFID tag implanted under your skin could transmit your NHS number and automatically record a comprehensive record of your care. Members of staff, drugs and equipment could also be tagged, creating the potential to automate administration, reduce errors and improve security.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) allows tagged objects to be remotely identified by a reader using radio transmissions. Excitement about RFID has been fuelled by its popularity in the retail sector, where organisations like Tesco, Wal-Mart and Marks and Spencer are testing it in supply chain management.

Click here to read a published article by Kinetic Consulting on RFID in healthcare: PDF (530K).

RFID applications to healthcare

In healthcare, RFID tags may be applied to people—patients and staff—and to objects, allowing readers on door frames, wards and treatment areas to detect and record interactions. Some applications are:

  • Patient identification
  • Asset and equipment tracking
  • Making newborns more secure
  • Reducing drug and blood administration errors.

The picture of the RFID patient wristband is by kind permission of the Precision Dynamics Corporation, California, USA.

RFID: passive or active?

RFID has two main components: a tag and a reader. Most tags have an antenna attached to a microchip containing a short identification number.

Tags can be active or passive. Active tags have a battery with a life of several years, a range of tens of meters and a larger data capacity than passive tags. Passive tags use reader emissions to power a brief response, usually just an ID number. They have a short range—about 10mm to 5 metres—and they can be small enough to implant under the skin.

The advantages of RFID tags over other methods of identification such as barcodes is that you can write to them, read them automatically even if you can not see them and (in theory at least) read many of them simultaneously.

Trouble with spy tags

RFID data can be secured by encryption and by careful design of transmission protocols. The short range of passive RFID tags also deters snooping. Furthermore, some developing RFID standards include password protection for tag identification fields and allow a reader (say at a check out) to erase all tag data.

Nevertheless, civil libertarians are concerned that patient RFID tags could be read by snoopers and together with data on tags on credit cards and on other goods could be used to identify patients and track them after discharge.

Tag it or leave it?

It remains to be seen how quickly RFID can achieve its potential; however, though it may not yet be time to bin the barcode, there are still many good reasons for early adopters to take up the tag.

Click here to read another article which analyses the innovative way that RFID is being applied to healthcare processes and management.

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