2006 was a pivotal year for RFID
in healthcare and pharmaceutical applications. At last there was widespread adoption of patient compliance monitoring blisterpacks in drug trials. These packs, costing $15 or so, improve the quality of data gathered in drug trials by recording which tablet was taken when and, thanks to RFID in the pack, relate that information to a specific patient without unreliable manual input. With 40-50% of patients taking their medicine incorrectly, that reform was long overdue. Leaders in best practice now include the US National Institutes of Health using 30,000 such packs to trial their new antibiotic Azithromycin and Novartis using the packs in drug trials.
Another wakeup call was heeded by hospitals. They typically lose up to 15% of assets by value every year. Indeed, Modern healthcare has reported that the typical hospital can not locate 15-20% of its assets and time spent searching for them equates to $1900 per nurse. Here active RFID is now used, where there is a battery
in the tag
to give long range or sensing capability. Particularly popular in the last year has been the more sophisticated version of this called Real Time Locating Systems RTLS
, which locate tagged items at a distance without them needing to pass near the reader
electronics. About 100 hospitals have adopted RTLS for either key assets or staff. Particularly popular has been the new version that does not need its own infrastructure because the tag locates itself using a pre-existing WiFi infrastructure. This saves cost and problems of tag batteries
lasting only a few days and tags being expensive have largely been overcome in the last year. However, there are still concerns about software maintenance, availability and accuracy with some such schemes and even the risk of overloading a WiFi network used for life saving actions such as data capture by physicians in transit. Conventional RTLS systems from Trenstar, Wavetrend, WhereNet
and others have therefore also proved popular in hospitals in the last year. Indeed, versions that let a nurse press an alarm and be instantly located have been valued in dealing with the increase in violence towards medical staff.
The world's largest database of case studies of RFID in action is the IDTechEx RFID Knowledgebase www.rfidbase.com
and this has seen Healthcare applications rise to 8.1% (199) of all cases, so it is now the sixth most important applicational sector for RFID by this measure. By money spent, Healthcare is even higher in the pecking order and progress is rapid, not least because, with FDA
encouragement, many pharmaceutical manufacturers in the USA are now tagging even the smallest containers of tablets to provide full reverse audit at item level ("pedigree") to combat the rise in counterfeiting.
The only disappointment is the perseverance with the old contacted smart cards
for patient records and access, given the fact that cards with contacts are disabled by the slightest amount of moisture and dirt and have to be put in a slot the right way up and the right way round. Contactless ie RFID cards should be used as they simply have to be held near the reader and they are more reliable and have longer life. That is why they are the norm for bus and train systems and are being adopted by the major credit and debit card brands. Time for healthcare professionals to catch up.