RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags are used today in a variety of ways, helping to track items in warehouses and automatically bill drivers at tollbooths. In sectors like healthcare, metal RFID tags are also being used in new and innovative ways. The underlying RFID technology is the same. It is based on the concept of combining a microchip with an antenna in a “tag”, which then responds to signals from a reader or scanner, returning a signal and possibly storing information. What is changing is the degree of miniaturization of small RFID tags available commercially, and their suitability for use in healthcare situations of critical importance.
Already in use for equipment such as beds, wheelchairs and infusion pumps, RFID tags have been helping hospitals to locate and account for these items, and to meet the challenges of efficient storage and prevention of theft. They are used as well in access control, file tracking, patient tracking and medication management. But now with RFID for surgical instruments they are also helping to meet a different challenge: how to avoid leaving surgical instruments or tiny surgical sponges in a patient’s body after an operation, oversights which can lead to serious complications or a need to re-operate.
RFID For Tracking Surgical Instruments During Operations
The problem addressed by metal RFID of forgotten surgical tools, sponges and towels is a serious one. The Healthcare Informatics Company found in 2008 that in one out of every eight operations, surgical tools are not properly accounted for. Other statistics indicate such items are left inside a patient’s body in between 1 out of every 1,000 and 1 out of every 5,000 operations. When this happens, they can cause infections and require additional operations, putting a patient’s health at risk and costing a hospital time and money. Until now, hospital operating table personnel had to manually count each small item.
The solution comes from a new generation of small RFID tags. These new metal RFID tags are robust enough to be inserted into surgical instruments, towels and sponges at the time of manufacture and can be read from distances of up to two meters. However, they remain compatible with, and safe for the human body. Xerafy, a Hong Kong company specializing in this technology, has recently introduced a new range of such RFID metal tags. Now RFID for surgical instruments allows them to be tracked automatically, through the operation itself and even throughout sterilization and disposal.
Overcoming challenges and accelerating adoption in hospitals
Metal RFID devices have overcome many of the difficulties of the hospital environment to allow staff to benefit from their advantages. Although many hospitals often operate several wireless networks at the same time and have large, metallic objects that can make radio transmission difficult, passive RFID technology means small RFID tags can work well. In addition to remaining compatible with other IT networks already in place, passive RFID tags also relieve staff from the necessity of “line of sight” tracking required by less flexible technologies such as bar codes.
Further healthcare applications for these small RFID tags could be found in minimally invasive operations and surgical procedures. Examples of minimally invasive operations would be found in orthopedic surgery, spinal surgery, neurosurgical procedures, and some ear/nose/throat procedures. RFID for surgical instruments in these procedures helps surgeons to precisely position instruments without having to rely on optical or electromagnetic data or approximations.
Falling prices and rising rates of adoption of RFID technology, such as RFID for surgical instruments, means that the healthcare sector in particular is forecast by research firm TechNavio to see an increase in RFID usage of 29% per year from 2010 to 2014. Although the risk of electromagnetic interference between metal RFID devices and other equipment is low, hospitals should still check to make sure that there are no problems.