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How RFID Technology Could Transform Medicine

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As the 21st century healthcare landscape continues to evolve rapidly, the medical field is exploring new uses for all kinds of technologies to improve patient care and outcomes. One such technology is Radio Frequency ID (RFID) technology. 

If you’ve heard the excitement about medical RFID technologies, or you’re interested in keeping up with the latest medical innovations, read on to learn about how this exciting tech is being put to work. From operating rooms to supply chains, RFID has the potential to create a more efficient and more accessible medical system with better outcomes for patients of all kinds. 

What Is RFID Technology? 

RFID technology uses specific radio wave frequencies within one of several radiofrequency bands to transmit data over a distance without physical contact. An RFID tag (a tiny device inside a plastic enclosure) encodes information in these radio waves, and the information is then picked up and read by a transponder device. Active RFID systems use battery-powered tags, while passive systems use the transponder device itself to power the tag’s communications. 

Most people have encountered RFID before in a form such as the plastic anti-theft tags used to prevent shoplifting in retail clothing stores, and the technology is also popular for warehouse inventory management in many different industries. But RFID has an enormous variety of uses in more complex systems, and the medical field is one such potential group of applications. 

Advantages of RFID

Many leaders in the medical field are turning their eye toward RFID technology to take advantage of the multitude of benefits that it offers. Some of the most significant upsides of RFID technology include: 

  • RFID is a read-write technology, giving it more versatility than read-only technologies such as barcodes. 
  • RFID can penetrate common shipping and storage materials such as cardboard and plastic. 
  • Ultra-high frequency RFID can offer a read range as long as 20+ meters in some cases. 
  • RFID technology can be used to read multiple groups of tags at once rather than individually. 
  • RFID generally doesn’t require a line of sight between a tag and its transponder (unlike optical scan barcode technology). 

Medical technology companies and healthcare providers are now developing and beginning to roll out a wide range of medical RFID technologies. In the next section, we’ll look at some of the most exciting examples. 

Use Cases for RFID in Medicine

Here are a few of the medical use cases for RFID that are in development or currently being deployed: 

  • Procedural Compliance: Compliance with procedures such as hand hygiene and surgical instrument loss prevention is critical to ensuring patient safety and preventing hospital-acquired infections. RFID provides an easy way to track compliance with these procedures by automatically detecting, for example, when a staff member has not visited the sink an adequate number of times per day or when all surgical instruments have not been returned to their proper places after a procedure. 
  • Patient Information: RFID bracelets can instantly transmit detailed patient information and help prevent potentially dangerous mix-ups. One study found that use of patient RFID tags almost completely eliminated critical errors in 81 different clinical scenarios. 
  • Inventory Management: The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the urgent need for medical facilities and medical supply businesses to carefully manage their stock, especially when it comes to items such as medical PPE. RFID can help ensure that medical supply stocks are accurately managed and efficiently distributed. 
  • Prescription Drug Control: Diversion of prescription drugs into the black market is a big concern with major public health consequences. As part of the Drug Quality and Safety Act of 2015, pharmacies and pharmaceutical warehouses are now using RFID tracking devices to monitor prescription drugs and ensure that they don’t end up in the wrong hands. 
  • Veterinary Medicine: RFID is already ubiquitous in the veterinary field in the form of pet microchips that allow lost animals to be reunited with their owners. The pet microchip system is a perfect example of how an RFID technology can provide a simple and cost-effective solution for a pressing problem. 

Challenges of Implementing RFID

Of course, if implementing RFID were always simple, it would already be part of the existing standard of care. Unfortunately, medical RFID technology often comes with one or more of the following challenges:

  • Cost: An RFID system designed for medical-grade performance is a significant investment. During a time of upheaval in the healthcare system, some providers may not be willing to make the investment required to fully equip and implement an RFID system. 
  • Metals and Fluids: Many RFID bands, particularly UHF, are subject to a lot of interference from fluids and metallic objects. 
  • Battery Replacement: Active RFID tags run on batteries, which must eventually be replaced. Passive RFID systems have an indefinite lifespan, but they have shorter read ranges and lack some of the features that active RFID tags offer. 
  • Security: Medical RFID systems can be vulnerable to exploitation by bad actors looking to gain access to private medical information. Studies have demonstrated that handheld RFID readers can be used in crowded spaces to secretly read information from unsecured RFID tags or devices and even create functional “clones” of them. RFID encryption can mitigate this risk, but it’s an additional investment that increases the already-high cost of medical RFID systems. 

As the case for RFID in the medical field grows, innovators and entrepreneurs are working hard to address these challenges. Some are using different types of electronics enclosures to improve signal transmission, while others are designing new prototypes that are designed to reduce the cost of RFID systems. 

RFID is an ascendant star in the medical technology sector, and we’re likely to see an increasing range of applications for it in the lifesaving tech of tomorrow. And as the technology develops, a new array of synergies may become apparent, fostering new innovation and further improving patient outcomes. 

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Christopher Stern
Christopher Stern is a Washington-based reporter. Chris spent many years covering tech policy as a business reporter for renowned publications. He has extensive experience covering Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and other federal agencies. He is a graduate of Middlebury College. Email:[email protected]

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