RFID Asset Tracking in Healthcare

Although barcodes are still predominant in the healthcare market – especially for singulating assets and verifying manual operation – radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is quickly gaining traction.

Over the past five years, automatic identification technology for asset tracking has improved significantly.

As the technology continues to demonstrate more accurate read rates, increased standards and lower system costs, it is an opportune time for forward-thinking healthcare facilities, hospitals and clinics to consider how RFID can positively impact their business.

If your health organization is looking at RFID, keep in mind the following trends and technologies.

Asset Tracking with Passive, or RAIN, RFID

Like barcodes, RFID is most frequently used for tracking assets – whether pharmaceuticals, medical devices, supplies or patients – within healthcare facilities. But, when compared to barcodes, RFID provides the added benefit of reading many items at once without the need for line-of-sight, user initiatives.

The chief type of RFID technology used for tracking assets is passive RFID. For example, a doctor’s office may use a passive RFID system to track bins of medical instruments through the sterilization process. As each bin (containing a passive tag) passes through a fixed RFID reader or portal, data is collected and uploaded to a database. From there, healthcare professionals can use the information to account for their equipment and even verify that it has been properly cleaned.

Today, passive RFID is even more cost effective, with some tags dropping below 10 cents apiece. The lower cost will allow for some suppliers to tag and build readers into supply cabinets. This provides greater accountability of important assets, like pharmaceuticals, and prevents theft or tampering. Of course, RFID-enabled cabinets and shelves only begin to scratch the surface of the role of the Internet of Things (IoT) in the healthcare market.

It is worth nothing that passive ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID has recently taken on a new name- “RAIN RFID.” While the technology behind it remains the same, the term “RAIN RFID” is quickly catching on across industries. So, just be aware that when you see “RAIN RFID,” it is simply another way to refer to passive systems.

Active RFID & Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) Tags

Whereas passive RFID tags rely on a powered reader to provide and transmit their signal, active or Wi-Fi enabled RFID tags have their own power source. So, the tag itself serves as a transmitter. Within a healthcare facility, active tags are most commonly used to locate and position (triangulate) an asset or patient.

For instance, active tags may be used to track hospital beds. By attaching an active RFID tag to a bed, staff can pinpoint the real-time location of each unit. With this visibility, hospitals can eliminate the need to manually search for missing beds. This allows them to improve productivity, more efficiently allocate resources and better serve patients.

SEE ALSO: Drug Inventory Management

Although active RFID tags have a greater read range than passive tags (many can be read from 100 feet away), they are more expensive and require more infrastructural investments. Fortunately, there is now another option: Bluetooth Low-energy (BLE) tags. BLE tags and readers are relatively low cost, follow an accepted standard and have long battery life. These tags are also easy to deploy, as many organizations already rely on Bluetooth-enabled devices within their enterprises, like smartphones and tablets.

Now, instead of deploying active (or even passive) RFID systems throughout a facility, hospitals can opt for BLE technology, coupled with smartphones and low-cost “CloudNodes,” to read, locate and identify assets. In addition, BLE technology can remotely monitor and report movement, temperature, shock or other asset characteristics. Plus, CloudNodes can attach to any Wi-Fi network and report back via the cloud without the need for local PCs, servers, locating engines or other network devices.

Hybrid RFID Systems

Asset tracking systems that utilize both active RFID and passive, or RAIN RFID are becoming more common in the healthcare arena, especially as users grow to understand the benefits and limitations of each type of technology.

Within a hybrid system, RAIN RFID is used for tracking large-volume, low-cost assets, while active RFID is used for tracking high-value, large assets in real time. So, for example, a hospital can track its containers of medical instruments with RAIN RFID tags, and track its beds with active tags. Information from both is married into one software interface, giving users a holistic view of all assets – no matter which type of RFID tag is utilized.

Furthermore, BLE tags can take the place of active tags in hybrid solutions, making the systems even more cost effective and easy to deploy.

Memory Space

Another impactful trend in RFID technology for the healthcare market is the use of tag memory space.

Many RFID tags can now store information beyond a simple identifier, doubling as a scratch pad or flash drive. A good use case for this memory space is tracking prescriptions. A doctor can tag a bottle of medicine.

Within that tag, he or she can embed information such as patient “A” took dosage “B” on date “C,” every time the prescription is administered. This allows personnel to verify that the correct dosage is given to the correct patient on the correct day, and creates an audit trail throughout the prescription’s lifecycle. Also, there is no need to upload the information to a database to retrieve it.

While barcodes will retain their relevance well into the future, it is hard to ignore the possibilities of RFID. After all, the RFID market is expected to reach $18.68 billion by 2026, according to a recent report from IDTechEx.

However, if you are considering RFID technology for your medical practice, clinic or healthcare facility, avoid getting wrapped up in the technology itself. First, take the time to assess your operations and your desired results. You may even find that a combination of solutions, like RFID and barcodes, is the best fit – and that’s the prescription for efficiency, accuracy and connectivity.

Tom O’Boyle is director of RFID, Barcoding, Inc.

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