Survey: RFID Use in Hospitals to Rise Despite Obstacles

By M.L. Baker  |  Posted 08-24-2005

Uncoordinated efforts between hospitals, vendors, shippers and suppliers are keeping RFID out of hospitals, concludes a new report by Spyglass Consulting Group.

Nonetheless, a few applications are poised to become mainstream.

Ten percent of HCOs (health care organizations) in the survey use RFID to track expensive mobile equipment. However, 45 percent of those interviewed expected to have such systems in place by the end of next year.

Right now, few hospitals have real-time tracking of equipment. They overpurchase or lease equipment to make sure they can find equipment when it's needed, says Gregg Malkary, managing director of Spyglass Consulting Group, so a tracking system can readily pay for itself.

According to the report, active RFID applications, which can be tracked on an RFID network, were much more popular than passive RFID networks, which require a nearby reader.

That's the case even though battery-powered RFID tags for active applications cost $50 to $100 plus network infrastructure. Passive RFID tags may cost 50 cents or less, but are still much more expensive than bar codes, which are only a fraction of a cent.

Network infrastructure was the most commonly named barrier to deployment, named by more than 92 of the 100 interviewees. HCOs want to be able to use existing wireless networks rather than a dedicated RFID network for tracking.

That makes the network more valuable, but also more susceptible. HCOs worry that tracking thousands of items could overwhelm the network. That could mean that clinicians are unable to access or enter patient data.

Click here to read about how Cisco's acquisition of Airespace could affect hospital wireless.

Another potential issue is RFID solutions that require network coverage outside of the areas where patients and physicians spend most of their time, such as storage rooms, stairwells and, potentially, areas just outside the hospital itself.

More than half of the interviewed experts also named funding, costs, immature technology and workflow integration as barriers. Costs included the price of RFID tags, readers and applications, as well as the wireless infrastructure and systems reworking necessary for their use.

Other active RFID applications poised for growth are patient tracking: 8 percent of organizations used such applications at the time of the survey, but 21 percent anticipated installing them within 18 months.

Though some passive RFID applications were projected to grow by 400 percent, none of these applications would be used as widely as their active counterparts.

For example, only one hospital included in the survey used RFID applications to allow staff to automatically log on to computers; three more planned to do this by the beginning of 2007. Still, the total number, even at tech-savvy hospitals, was under 5 percent.

One reason is that manufacturers, suppliers and hospitals need different kinds of information. "The bar codes are used to support needs of vendors, not the needs of the hospital," Malkary said.

That means hospitals don't use codes on shipped packages to distribute equipment and supplies across hospital departments.

No hospitals used RFID to prevent drug counterfeiting or theft, according to the report. That's because the information RFID or bar codes contain is rarely what the hospital needs, nor is it even consistent across suppliers.

"Different drug companies use different formats, so drugs are not represented the same, even if they are the same drug," said Malkary. As a result, hospitals repackage these drugs and implement their own tracking systems.

Read more here about wireless LAN support and security challenges.

Malkary said lack of coordination and price were the biggest barriers to passive RFID technologies, but they also have significant technological barriers.

RFID could be much more convenient than bar coding because it would eliminate awkward "wanding" necessary to bring the bar code into the precise position necessary for the reader to scan its information, said Malkary. "But what if there are lots of patients in a room or multiple medications on the tray?" he added. "In practicality there are a lot of ambiguity, and they haven't figured that out yet."

Spyglass interviewed 100 executives at 98 hospitals to find out what RFID applications were in place or expected to be in place within 18 months, as well as the reasons behind technology decisions.

Two-thirds of interviewees worked in information technology or a pharmacy; the others were in clinical engineering or materials management departments.