Radio frequency technology costly, but could improve hospital supply chain

Using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to track medical equipment, blood, supplies and even patients is saving hospitals money, improving patient safety and even facilitating patient billing, according to a review summarized in Perspectives in Health Information Management.

The article argues that hospitals gain efficiency by being better able to track and locate equipment, manage distribution and deter theft. While RFID implementation is expanding through the hospital supply chain, the high cost and uncertain return on investment remain barriers to rapid, widespread adoption, the researchers concluded.

"Given that hospital personnel fail to locate … mobile assets anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the time because of misplacement, the value of RFID tracking can be seen," the authors wrote.

The idea is to replace bar-code technology with RFID technology, expanding the amount of information that can be stored in the device and eliminating the need for staff to directly scan bar codes. RFID scanners can easily be added to hospital Wi-Fi infrastructure, according to the article, which also noted system operability is a potential barrier.

Another drawback is that hospitals will have to be able to deal with large amounts of data--some of it redundant--generated through RFID, the authors said.

Given the barriers, the authors projected that only a few U.S. hospitals would implement RFID to their supply chains. Collaboration between supply-chain vendors and the hospital industry could significantly lower costs and increase opportunity, they concluded.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is among hospital systems utilizing related technology. The VA will deploy real-time locating system technology at 152 of its medical centers to improve operational efficiency, according to a recent announcement by Intelligent InSites, a company subcontracted to provide the software. HP won the primary contract, worth $543 million.

For more information:
- read the study

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