radio frequency identification

Everything You Need to Know About Radio Frequency Identification of Medical Devices

March 12, 2019

Radio frequency identification, commonly shortened to RFID, is a type of technology impacting the way various industries log and track information attached to products and people. The healthcare world may have the most to gain when it comes to RFID. This technology offers some significant benefits that could help improve the quality of care patients receive.

In 2014, the value of the global RFID in healthcare market was $646.7 million in U.S. dollars, and it is expected to be worth $4.9 billion by 2022. Such astounding growth is evidence of the fact that healthcare professionals and medical device manufacturers recognize the great potential for RFID. Though RFID could impact the way nurses care for patients, the way pharmaceuticals are delivered and many other areas of health care, an especially valuable application of RFID is in tracking medical devices.

Medical devices have a profound impact on health care. They are the tools that doctors and nurses need to provide the best care to patients. Just as the right device can help heal a patient, the wrong device or a contaminated device could cause a patient great harm. RFID can track medical devices to ensure that the right devices are used at the right time on the right patients.

In this article, we’ll learn more about what an RFID device is, how the technology works, how it’s applied in health care and the benefits and challenges of this technology. As we’ll see, testing is a necessary step in ensuring radio frequency identification devices in health care are functioning and coexisting properly.

What Is a Radio Frequency Identification Device?

Radio frequency identification is a means of keeping track of objects using digitally encoded tags and a digital database that contains the information about every tagged object. In this way, RFID technology is similar to barcoding. However, unlike reading barcodes, an RFID reader, also known as an interrogator, uses radio waves to locate tags and doesn’t need to have the tag right in front of it to scan it. In fact, the tag doesn’t even need to be in the line of sight of the reader. Furthermore, barcodes must be read one at a time, but multiple RFID tags can be read simultaneously.

RFID tags

Radio frequency identification is a useful technology across many industries. It can be used to track inventory, tools or other assets. Even people can be tracked using RFID. For example, marathons and other racing events use RFID tags to track runners’ finish times. As we’ll see, in the medical industry, patients can be better accounted for using RFID wrist bands. As long as you can place an encoded tag, also called a smart label, on something, it can be tracked through RFID.

Radio frequency identification technology was developed in the mid-20th Century and began to appear commercially in the 1970s. Since then, many industries have come to rely on RFID in some way. The average person has likely used this technology without even realizing that’s what it was. For example, for about two decades now, car manufacturers have been making most keys with RFID chips. This allows you to unlock your vehicle using a fob and enhances the security of your vehicle since only known keys will start the car.

Though many industries have embraced RFID technology, it is most popular in the healthcare sector, where it can be used to track medical instruments, medications and more.

How Does RFID Technology Work?

Radio frequency identification technology falls under the umbrella of Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC). This group of technologies is focused on using data to locate and catalog items remotely. RFID shares a similar purpose with some other technologies in this group, but the way it works is unique.

Let’s start with a simple explanation for how RFID works. An RFID tag’s microchip contains data. The tag receives electromagnetic energy from a reader’s antenna. The antenna in the tag uses radio waves to transmit data back to the reader. The reader can then receive the radio waves and interpret the signal to make sense of the data. The data is ultimately stored in a database in a host computer system.

Though the basic technology behind RFID remains constant, RFID has undergone improvements over the years. For one, computers have become more advanced, which has allowed for more flexibility and efficiency in how data is stored. Most of us are somewhat familiar with the evolution of computers in general. Perhaps less familiar is the evolution that RFID tags have undergone. Let’s look at some of the developments over the years:

  • Inductively coupled tags: The original RFID tags were inductively coupled tags. These tags were made up of a complicated network of antennae, metal coils and glass, and they got their power from the RFID reader. The reader generated a magnetic field, which would induce an electrical current in the wire in the tag. These tags were expensive and were mainly used on large items such as livestock or heavy equipment.
  • Capacitively coupled tags: Since the inductively coupled tags were expensive, capacitively coupled tags were made to be less costly so they could be disposable. Instead of being made of metal and glass, capacitively coupled tags were comprised of conductive carbon ink printed on paper.
  • Active tags and semi-passive tags: Active, semi-passive and passive tags are all newer developments in RFID technology. These tags can be plastic, silicon or glass. An active tag uses an internal battery to power its circuits and to broadcast radio waves which are picked up by the reader. A semi-passive tag also uses an internal battery to power its circuits, but the reader gives it the power it needs to broadcast radio waves. Active and semi-passive tags can still be read when they’re 100 feet away or more from the reader.
  • Passive tags: As with active and semi-passive tags, passive tags can generally store up to two kilobytes of data. These RFID tags draw all their power from the reader and must remain within 20 feet of the reader. Passive tags are less costly than active and semi-passive tags, which makes them a great option for disposable applications.

RFID technology

Developments in RFID technology have made it more accessible and affordable. RFID, like other technologies, will continue to be refined in the coming years. In the future, smartphone apps will likely replace traditional RFID tag readers, making the entire process more user-friendly and streamlined.

Applications of Radio Frequency Identification in Health Care

RFID in healthcare

While RFID technology has a wide range of useful applications, it may be the most valuable in the healthcare sector. RFID isn’t just about convenience or accuracy for the healthcare world — it’s about saving lives. In health care, a simple human error can make the difference between life and death. Though medical professionals are knowledgeable and work hard, human error can still creep in and cause serious problems.

Patient safety experts at Johns Hopkins found that over 250,000 deaths in the U.S. every year are the result of medical errors. This unsettling statistic demonstrates the need for improving current practices in the medical field.

As information technology advances, the primary concern for the healthcare sector is how new technology can improve patient care and help prevent errors, especially potentially fatal ones. RFID is hailed by many as the answer to this problem. It can enhance accuracy and authentication throughout various healthcare processes, significantly reducing any room for errors to occur.

RFID can improve countless aspects of health care, one major area being tracking medical devices. Let’s look at this application first and then discuss the many other valuable applications for RFID in the healthcare sector which are prompting healthcare professionals to adopt the technology.

1. Tracking Medical Devices

The term “medical devices” encompasses any instrument, machine, implant or other type of device used to prevent, diagnose or treat medical issues. This includes everything from a bedpan or a scalpel to a heart monitor or a bandage. When these items are all labeled with RFID tags, they can be tracked throughout a hospital or other medical facility, helping to secure items from theft and to ensure that they are used as intended on the right patients.

Medical equipment manufacturers can embed RFID tags into their products to meet standards for quality assurance and to track their products to their destinations. Manufacturers who include RFID tags with the medical devices they produce also make their products more valuable to the clinics, hospitals, doctor’s offices and other medical facilities that use them.

One notable category of medical devices is lab equipment, which includes test tubes, blood vials, slides and more. RFID tags can track these devices to help prevent errors in the laboratory process and to ensure quality control and safety.

Surgical equipment is another important category of medical devices. RFID can reveal where all surgical instruments and equipment are at any given time, which can prevent the serious issue of a device being accidentally left inside a patient’s body. Standard procedure is that operation theatre staff must manually count and keep track of all surgical instruments being used. RFID does the work for them, so they can assist in other valuable ways.

2. Accessing a Patient’s Chart

accessing patient charts

Any healthcare professional understands just how critical it is to have accurate information about a patient’s medical history, drug allergies, prescribed medication dosages and other relevant medical information. A patient’s chart contains this information, but human error can sometimes lead to an oversight that could endanger a patient. RFID chips can help prevent this. They can be inserted into typical patient wrist bands, so a single scan can make a nurse aware of the patient’s medical information.

3. Keeping Infants Secure

Whether in a hospital’s newborn nursery or the neonatal intensive care unit, infants are vulnerable to being matched to the wrong parents or even kidnapping if they aren’t properly tagged. Wrist bracelets equipped with RFID tags can label infants accurately so there is no confusion and can keep them secure against the threat of unauthorized removal from the hospital.

4. Verifying Sterilization

Sterilization is absolutely critical for preventing cross-contamination as medical devices are used on different patients. If a device is erroneously believed to be sterilized, it could lead to a serious infection. Fortunately, RFID sensors can handle the extreme temperatures required for sterilization. You can even program your RFID system to send notifications when a device is sterilized, which is a critical way RFID can help with quality control.

5. Streamlining Organ Donation

Over 114,000 people are eagerly awaiting an organ donation to improve their quality of life or to survive, and more people are added to the list all the time. When an organ donor dies and is a viable candidate for organ donation, medical professionals need to move fast. RFID tags can be attached to corpses in a hospital’s morgue to automate the process of determining which organs are available for transplantation. This could streamline the process of matching donors with recipients and carrying out transplants in a way that ensures accuracy.

6. Enforcing Hygiene Standards

enforcing hygiene standards

Hygiene standards, such as frequent hand washing, are there to make sure doctors, nurses and other personnel don’t carry germs from one patient to another. Especially when patients are susceptible to infection, proper hygiene is paramount. Unfortunately, studies continue to demonstrate that medical professionals fail to wash their hands as often as they’re supposed to. Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif., employed a real-time location system (RTLS) to track hand hygiene and saw compliance with the standard go from 45 percent to 77 percent.

7. Tracking Pharmaceuticals

RFID systems can also be used to track pharmaceuticals. Keeping track of pharmaceuticals is critical in part because drug counterfeiting and theft are serious issues. RFID tracking can help mitigate this issue. Another benefit of tracking drugs is it can help ensure that patients receive the right medications. Accidentally administering a drug to the wrong patient could cause serious consequences both for that patient and for the patient who was actually meant to receive the medication.

8. Ensuring Quality of Pharmaceuticals

ensuring pharmaceutical quality

Pharmaceuticals don’t just need to be tracked in terms of location. They must also be tracked for quality assurance purposes. RFID smart labels can help ensure that pharmaceuticals which require specific storage temperatures are being stored in the right environments. Blood and tissue samples can also be tracked to ensure they’re being kept in a refrigerator. If a drug passes the expiration date, RFID can show it so the drug isn’t administered only to have a diminished or nonexistent effect on a patient.

9. Limiting Personnel Access

RFID technology can also be used to secure certain rooms, cabinets or other controlled areas. Personnel can have ID cards that only give them access to areas where they’re qualified to be. This means only those with authorized access will be able to enter particular wings or rooms or retrieve instruments or drugs from storage areas. This can help prevent issues of theft or simply an unqualified member of staff making a preventable error.

Advantages and Disadvantages of RFID in Health Care at a Glance

There are seemingly endless applications for RFID in health care. Tracking medical devices is a major application, but as we’ve seen, there are many others. Some of these applications could be achieved through barcodes or other technologies, but RFID offers some valuable benefits, including its:

  • Low electromagnetic interference (EMI) properties
  • Affordability
  • Compact size
  • Battery-less technology capabilities
  • Large memory capacity
  • Readability across distances and through obstacles

benefits of RFID

In 2013, researchers reviewed the literature on the use of radio frequency identification in health care and determined that RFID has great potential to improve processes and prevent medical errors and should, therefore, be integrated into hospital information systems (HIS) and electronic health records (EHRs).Hospitals are increasingly embracing the use of RFID because it promises enhanced efficiency, process control, safety, planning, patient comfort and response to critical events.

As the healthcare world embraces new technology for valuable applications such as health information exchange (HIE) and how electronic health information (EHI) is used, radio frequency identification will continue to occupy a prominent role. RFID equips healthcare professionals to keep detailed and accurate records which aids in the critical processes of EHR and HIE.

Although many healthcare professionals are adopting RFID technology, potential challenges with the technology are keeping others from taking advantage of RFID’s benefits.

For example, though affordability was listed as a pro, depending on the type of tag you use and whether you need to replace batteries, RFID systems can be costly. They can also have high electricity demands. Another logistical issue is that metals and fluids are difficult to label with RFID tags.

One of the main concerns with RFID is the potential for interference between RFID and other electronic medical devices like pacemakers. As more and more radio frequency (RF) wireless devices are popping up all over our homes and work environments, there could be problems between RFID devices and these other devices.

When you’re using RFID technology to track items within close proximity, there are ways of keeping the radio waves from interfering with each other. The exact frequency at which RFID devices broadcast can be adjusted to avoid interference with other RFID devices. Time-division multiple access (TDMA) can also be used to prevent interference. This method staggers the signals sent by various devices so they can share the same frequency channel.

FDA medical device standards

You should have your RFID system tested to ensure that there aren’t any issues with RFID emissions and other products in your facility. This isn’t just a good idea — it may be necessary to ensure you’re meeting certain standards. The FDA recognizes the following standards for the coexistence of wireless medical devices:

Meeting FDA requirements is a must. This is where relying on testing professionals can help ensure that you’re aware of all the relevant standards, especially those enforced by the FDA, and that you can effectively test your products to ensure they meet or exceed these standards.

Partner With NTS for Radio Frequency Identification Testing

NTS has the experience and professional expertise to handle all your FDA Wireless Coexistence testing needs. We can come up with a testing plan and assist you in submitting your test results to the FDA for final review and approval. NTS has a long history of helping customers with medical electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) testing, including radio frequency identification systems. From surgical microscopes and glucose monitors to electric wheelchairs and hearing implants, we can make sure all of the medical devices in your facility coexist effectively.

As one of the largest commercial test laboratory networks in North America, we can handle any challenge that comes our way. Our engineers and technicians are exceptionally knowledgeable in a wide range of test and conformity requirements in the U.S. as well as in international arenas. Whether you’re a medical device manufacturer who wants to bring a quality and regulation-compliant product to market or a healthcare facility using RFID technology, we can help you.

NTS radio frequency identification

We can also provide a range of other medical device testing services, including technology, environmental and materials testing. Let the experts at NTS assist you in ensuring quality and efficiency at every step of the way. To get started, request a free quote from us or contact us to learn more about how we can serve your business.

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