On track for a very 'active' role
Some call the radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip a “barcode on steroids.” But despite the potential for that simple but powerful tracking technology to make big improvements in cost reduction and patient safety, its use – especially part of real-time location systems (RTLS) – remains a relative anomaly in healthcare. Some analysts peg RTLS market penetration to be as low as 10 percent.
Harry Pappas, founder of the International RFID Business Association and its subsidiary RFID in Healthcare Consortium, wants to change that. “Our goal is education and training and awareness,” he said.
By partnering with organizations such as HIMSS – whose president and CEO, H. Stephen Lieber, has said that the “power and potential” of the technology is “boundless” – Pappas has sought to spur much more widespread adoption and “really deliver value to the healthcare community.”
One of Pappas’ fellow RFID/RTLS proselytizers is Paul Frisch, chief of biomedical physics and engineering at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He spearheaded some RFID pilots there in 2005, and said he immediately saw the benefits.
At first they started small, using it for tracking certain inventory, such as infusion pumps. And soon enough, said Frisch, it was tempting to expand to other uses – tracking patient beds and staff, say, or using it for error checking and validation.
“Once we did this inventory management piece,” he said, “essentially the institution was RFID-ready for other applications.”
Sloan-Kettering now has about 12,000 tags deployed hospital-wide.
“As the institution moves toward increased connectivity and looks to the issues around medication administration and sample collection, developing flow sheets and putting documentation into the EMR, it becomes more and more critical how you use certain processes simultaneously,” said Frisch.
“The one thing that kind of overlaps all of those is how you do identification and association and tracking,” he added. “RTLS and RFID provide a precise method of being able to do dynamic association identification and provide metrics on a changing type of environment. This is a fundamental piece for not only inventory management and supply chain, but it’s also fundamental to the clinical operations.”
Unfortunately, “deployment is not cheap,” said Frisch. Moreover, the “problem with generating an ROI is that the applications are spread across many different departments and many different types of applications.” It can be confusing, too, with a lot of terminologies and technologies that can all work together in various combinations.
“I think that’s the biggest stumbling block, just tying it all together,” he said.
Decision-makers are starting to see the value in the technology. At the HIMSS11 RFID & RTLS Showcase in Orlando, Fla., this past February, Pappas said, “everybody from the C-suite to the IT directors was coming in to see how these technologies can affect, in a positive way, patient care, patient safety and also improve operating efficiencies within the healthcare community.”
In Las Vegas next year, at HIMSS12, the pavilion will include “a complete build-out of an OR” outfitted with RFID, Pappas said. He expects that to pique even more interest.
“When you combine passive RFID technology and RTLS technologies, and then tie that into the new smartphone devices that are coming out, and tap them into the existing systems,” he said, the possibilities for cost savings and improve care are amplified. “The uses are just beginning to scratch the surface.”