When someone mentions item-level RFID tracking, historically they’ve been talking about retail applications. It’s become something of a Holy Grail in the retail industry as a cost-effective way to tag and scan every single product on a shelf.
But there are plenty of other applications in which item-level RFID tracking is already in place and providing plenty of benefits. In the healthcare industry, RFID helps hospitals, device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies reduce costs and improve visibility.
In the Pharmacy
In the pharmaceutical market, companies are testing and using RFID to track drugs throughout the supply chain in an effort to stop theft and counterfeiting. Hanmi Pharmaceutical, for example, has used RFID internally and across its supply chain to track the movement of its products.
RFID could potentially aid drug safety and anti-counterfeiting efforts by providing a unique identifier that is more difficult to duplicate than a barcode — for example, onboard encryption. Item-level RFID tracking of pharmaceuticals also provides better inventory management and supply chain visibility from the manufacturer to the pharmacy.
In the Hospital
Hospitals are already using real-time locating systems (essentially Wi-Fi-based RFID systems) to manage movement of assets like IV pumps, wheelchairs, and other equipment throughout the hospital. (In some facilities, these systems even track the patients themselves.)
Others are using RFID-based drug dispensing systems or supply management solutions that track expensive supplies and automatically trigger replenishment orders. Some facilities also use traditional RFID tags to track other types of equipment, garments, and even hard-copy patient charts and files.
“Smart cabinet” systems that dispense medications using RFID technology are also becoming more common, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan.
Interest in these “smart cabinet” systems is growing, they say. Hospitals are the biggest users of smart cabinet systems, with catheterization laboratories (cath labs), operating rooms (ORs), and surgical departments being the primary application areas.
“The low infrastructure costs and quick returns associated with RFID smart cabinets encourage their adoption in hospitals,” said Frost & Sullivan Healthcare Research Analyst Shruthi Parakkal. “End users prefer RFID smart cabinets with cost-effective architecture that eliminates redundancies — such as multiple paths — and reduces interference.”
At the Blood Bank
There have been barcode labels on blood bags for years, but those labels require line-of-sight scanning. In a blood bank with thousands of bags, finding the right product quickly can be a challenge.
Now that prices of RFID labels have dropped, new solutions are emerging that can provide faster scanning and item-level RFID tracking of blood products. That can provide some much-needed efficiency, particularly in the types of cold-storage units that often house blood.
A pilot run by the Transfusion Medicine RFID Consortium in 2012 found that using RFID resulted in a 33% reduction in reconciliation issues or misplaced products at the blood-donation points.
In the Operating Room
RFID has also been deployed in the emergency room and operating theater to track kitted items on crash carts, pharmacy kits, and other types of bundled medicine, equipment, and supplies that are taken into the surgery area. Only a few items from these kits may be used at a time. Afterward, the supplies are replenished or, in some cases, the surgical tools are sent through an autoclave or other type of sterilization process.
Using RFID, staff can use item-level RFID to track the contents of these kits and make sure every item is replaced before the cart or kit is put back into service. That prevents equipment loss or theft, and ensures that the hospital doesn’t invest in unnecessary duplicate supplies.
A number of companies have developed RFID tags that can withstand sterilization, designed specifically for these types of healthcare applications.
The healthcare market is the perfect fit for item-level RFID tracking. Assets, surgical tools, pharmaceuticals and other items are all high-value goods that are frequently lost, stolen, diverted, or counterfeited. With RFID, healthcare organizations can improve safety, reduce costs, and improve the quality of care by keeping better track of inventory, making sure equipment is available when it is needed, and ensuring that the right supplies are being used for the right patient.