Bar Codes vs. RFID Tags: Labs Will Need Both

RFID technology improvements promise rapid deployment in labs and healthcare

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CEO SUMMARY: Take everything you liked about bar code tracking. Eliminate the problems of reading bar codes. What results is the promise of radio frequency identification devices, or RFIDs. In the United States, it is already finding uses in blood transfusion, patient identification, and specimen tracking. Moreover, experts predict RFID costs will decline rapidly, further encouraging its adoption.

EVEN AS MANY LABORATORIES have yet to implement their first bar code systems, a new identification technology is showing the potential to become dominant.

That new technology is RFID, which stands for radio frequency identification devices. RFID systems are now in use within the military health system, and at hospitals such as Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston, Massachusetts), Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland), and the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Among other functions, RFID tags are already used to track laboratory specimens and to support certain blood banking functions.

RFID tags are composed of a microchip that contains data linked to a miniscule antenna which sends information to a reader using low-frequency radio waves. They have an important advantage over bar codes. For bar codes to be read, a scanner must be physically oriented toward the code. In contrast, an RFID tag must only be within range of a reader.

Most people are familiar with RFID. It is the technology in various “speed pass” systems used on the nation’s toll roads. It is also the alarm sound generated when someone leaves a department store with an item that still contains an active RFID sensor.

Currently, the immediate barrier to wider adoption of RFID over bar codes in healthcare settings is its higher cost. Passive RFID tags currently cost about 20¢ apiece. That discourages use of this technology to track individual doses of prescription medicines and laboratory specimen tubes.

RFIDs Track Patients

The United States Navy uses RFID to track the status and location of wounded service personnel, prisoners of war, refugees and others arriving to be treated at its Pensacola Fleet Hospital in Iraq. It purchased the “Tactical Medical Coordination System” (Tac-MedCS) from ScenPro, Inc., located in Richardson, Texas.

Patients are banded with an RFID upon arrival at the hospital. The RFID tag enables patient identification. It also sends automatic updates of their status, location, and medical information to the systems’ “whiteboard.” The RFID system has eliminated the manual patient tracking system.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, RFID tags are used in blood transfusion applications. Since last March, Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC has used a patient wrist band that contains both bar codes and RFID tags for transfusion patients. Nurses now carry a scanner that can read both the bar code and the RFID tag. Nurses prefer the RFID technology and no errors have been reported since introduction of the dual- technology system.

Surprising Preference

Some hospitals have decided to leap-frog bar codes and go directly to RFID. The Bon Secours Health System of Richmond, Virginia recently put RFID tags on approximately 12,000 pieces of movable equipment in three hospitals. This includes IV poles, pumps, wheelchairs, stretchers, and hospital beds. The system allows an employee to go to any computer station, click an icon, and locate needed equipment. The system has been live since last July and is expected to generate cost savings of $200,000 per year over the cost of the system.

2003 Malcolm Baldrige award-winner St. Luke’s Health System of Kansas City, Missouri has its own RFID project. In January 2006, it will open a brand new hospital in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. It is considering using RFID to go “bedside” with laboratory specimen tracking, intravenous drugs, prescription drugs, and other applications.

Fast-Improving Technology

It is timely for laboratory managers and pathologists to start watching and learning about RFID technology. Big retailers like Wal-Mart are driving acceptance in the private sector. The U.S. Department of Defense is a major proponent of RFID use. A host of experts believe the cost of RFID tags and systems will fall dramatically in a relatively short time. That is expected to further speed up the adoption curve.

For laboratories, the benefits are obvious. RFID can improve both the speed and accuracy of patient identification at time of specimen collection. Specimens, tubes, and slides tagged with RFID markers can be tracked automatically through the lab. The lost specimen issue disappears, since an RFID tag on a tube broadcasts its location.

THE DARK REPORT believes RFID technology has the potential for more rapid acceptance than currently acknowledged by experts. One reason is its potential to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety in a variety of ways.

RFID Tags Can Do More Than Bar Code Systems

RADIO FREQUENCY IDENTIFICATION DEVICES (RFIDs) can be either passive or active. A passive RFID tag consists of a microchip and an antenna. It is activated by radio waves from the reader brought within range.

Active RFID tags include a battery which allows it to be continuously monitored. When applied to an EKG monitor, for example, the active tag allows the monitor to be located in seconds by using a reader.

Bar code scanners must be physically positioned to read the bar code. Improper positioning or smudges on the bar code label make it impossible to scan. RFID tags easily overcome those problems and have a higher reliability in use than bar codes.

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