RFID in the Medical Field - How RFID Benefits Medical Providers

As medical providers struggle with ever-increasing amounts of paperwork and higher patient needs, many of them seek out new technologies to improve outcomes. Radio frequency identification (RFID) is one of the rising star technologies in the medical field, and an increasing number of providers are finding ways to put it to good use. 

An RFID reader often goes incognito in a small instrument enclosure, and it reads an even smaller RFID tag that’s loaded with information. You probably already use RFID — most of us lock and unlock our vehicles using an RFID transmitter inside our key fob case! Now the technology is expanding quickly in healthcare applications. 

What are the major ways that you’ll find RFID being implemented in healthcare today, and what are some of its most intriguing potential future use cases? These are six important aspects of RFID in healthcare at the hospital level and beyond.

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1. Patient Identification

Patient misidentifications in healthcare can be tremendously costly mistakes, both in financial and human terms. That’s why some practices have moved toward an RFID-based patient identification system. These systems allow staff to instantly verify a patient’s identity, as well as communicate potentially crucial information such as allergies.

Each patient receives a bracelet with a unique RFID identifier. The staff member administering care uses an RFID reader to read the tag, which provides them with the patient’s identity and basic medical information. The small and unobtrusive tags used in RFID systems make this system comfortable for patients and easy to use for staff.

2. Wander and Fall Alerts 

RFID bracelets are a potentially life-saving tool for keeping people safe in memory care and assisted living facilities. “Wander alert” systems automatically detect when a person has left a certain area. That makes it easier to prevent patients with dementia and other neurological impairments from leaving safe areas without requiring round-the-clock monitoring.

Fall alerts are another potential use case for medical RFID. Although the technology is still in its infancy, studies have shown some promising results for RF-based fall detection. Soon, it might be possible to detect events like someone rolling out of bed using RF sensors. That would be a win for elder care facilities, which still struggle with the extreme hazards that falls present.

3. Equipment Tracking

Medical facilities need the ability to track key pieces of equipment. Equipment goes missing often in medical facilities, whether from medical device theft or simple negligence. In the case of devices like computers and phones, that can mean exposure of personal health information. That’s part of why medical facilities now use RFID trackers on some equipment to prevent its loss. 

Additionally, RFID can guard against retained foreign objects after surgery, the shockingly common event in which surgical staff accidentally leave objects inside patients’ bodies. Placing RFID trackers on surgical equipment gives surgical staff a tool to ensure that everything is accounted for. Studies have validated the effectiveness of this approach and, considering the devastating consequences of retained foreign bodies, more providers are likely to implement it.

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4. Workflow Monitoring

Workflow monitoring applications use RFID devices to provide real-time information about work processes and patient status. A surgeon, for example, can get real-time updates on the status of a pre-op patient in the time before a procedure, giving them more information and more choices for how to provide the best care. 

These technologies also hold significant potential for managing waiting rooms in ERs and provider offices. RFID transmitters can provide patient monitoring capabilities useful for identifying foot traffic bottlenecks and optimizing layouts. They’re also useful for tracking patient locations in ERs and mental health crisis facilities, where individuals in distress may not stay within the normal boundaries. 

5. Hand Hygiene Monitoring

Healthcare-associated infections are a major threat to patients, and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important best practices to reduce them. To ensure that staff follow the right protocols, some medical facilities have begun implementing automated hand hygiene monitoring systems using RFID trackers.

These systems outfit staff with RFID tags and hand-washing stations with RFID readers. When staff visit hand hygiene stations, the reader encodes the tag, providing data to administrators about the frequency and distribution of hand washing. While these systems still need further development for accuracy and ease of use, they might be a key part of future efforts to fight hospital acquired infections. 

6. Pharmaceutical Tracking

Medical providers also need a robust system for tracking pharmaceuticals, and some are legally required to do so under the Drug Supply Chain Security Act. RFID has recently gotten some attention as a potentially useful tool for this purpose. Although the vast majority of the pharmaceutical industry uses 2D barcodes for its track and trace protocols, a small but growing minority has moved to RFID-based tracking systems.

The businesses that have adopted RFID for these purposes will be test cases for its efficacy. Accessibility and shareability of data will be crucial, as will the ability to avoid siloing from barcode-based systems. If they can achieve notably better outcomes than their barcode-using peers, further adoption of the technologies is possible. 

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As trends like medical IoT continue to revolutionize the healthcare landscape, it’s likely that we’ll see even more uses of medical RFID appear in the coming years. Many of the technologies we’ve discussed here are still new, and they’ll no doubt evolve in new directions as providers test them out on the ground. 

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