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February 11, 2011

Connected Health Using RFID: Showcasing Smart Hospitals at HIMSS 2011


The RFID in Healthcare Consortium (RHCC) is bringing its connected health hospital message to HIMSS this year with an all-day symposium on “The Business and Technical Essentials of RFID and RTLS Technologies for the Life Sciences Industry” and a daily showcase of the technologies that enable “Hospital Patient Smart Rooms.” The showcase will focus on the many applications of RFID and RTLS technologies, seamlessly integrated with existing IT hospital systems at healthcare, assisted living, and nursing home facilities. Both programs are a reminder of how far hospitals have advanced in terms of connectivity and tracking of all types of equipment, as well as patients themselves.

Well before the dawn of connected health, I spent summers working as circulating nurse in surgery. I was a pre-med student and thought that getting some firsthand experience with life on the front line of healthcare delivery would help prepare me for the road ahead. (In a sense it did because I chose another path, but that isn’t the point here.)

One of the duties of a circulating nurse – at least back those many years ago – was to gather up sponges that were thrown on the floor during surgery. Each sponge was attached to a rather large metal ring. Initially in my naiveté I thought that the purpose of the ring was to make it possible to pick up the sponge without contacting the fluids it had absorbed or maybe as a way to hang up a whole bunch of sponges. But no. In fact, the purpose of the metal ring was to make it easy to see on a post-surgery X-ray if a sponge had been left inside a patient by mistake.

It’s been many years since I’ve been in a surgical theater so I don’t know if sponges with metal rings are still in use but reading the news items and white papers at the RFID in Healthcare Consortium (RHCC) website I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those metal rings have now been replaced by RFID chips.



RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification and most consumers encounter it in the form of those little plastic tags that are attached to store merchandise and that set off an alarm if they aren’t deactivated before leaving the store. An RFID tag (News - Alert) is simply a very cheap – think 5 cents -- electronic circuit that responds by transmitting a pre-coded number when it is washed with radio frequency waves. “I’m sponge 5375.”

Of course there are lots of items beside sponges that can end up in the wrong place at the wrong time in any healthcare setting. A pill can end up in the wrong person. A baby can end up with the wrong mother. A meal can end up in front of the wrong patient. A patient can end up inside the wrong diagnostic machine. ThingMagic, Visonic and TeleTracking are three of many companies that are bringing to the healthcare marketplace a number of point-solution products based on RFID technologies that address specific identification and location-tracking problems.  All of them have been focused on RFID for over a decade and bring deep understanding of the technology and the ways and means of its application to the table.

The cost of an RFID tag is now so low that a throw-away tag could be attached to even very inexpensive items in an inventory or on a shelf. As the item being tracked became more expensive or as the cost of losing it became greater more robust and more capable RFID tags have been invented and put into action.

One dimension of technological evolution has been in the nature of the exchange that the RFID tag is capable of engaging in with a tag reader. For example, rather than just providing a serial number to any and all queries, a security conscious tag might ask the scanner device to identify itself before the tag will say who it is. In the same vein, the tag might give different numbers to different types of scanners or it might encrypt its number in a way that only certain scanning devices can decrypt.

Another dimension of evolution has been to endow RFID chips with a battery power supply. These tags – sometimes called RuBee tags after the IEEE (News - Alert) standard that defines them – can carry on a conversation with an interrogator that can be over five feet away and may keep a log of the details of all its interactions with the outside world for later retrieval and analysis.

The take-away here is that the space of wireless technologies and applications between the 5 cent basic RFID tag in an inventory system and the smartphone and tablet devices is rapidly filling up with innovative and highly connected healthcare solutions–with RFID moving up the chain to meet hospital tracking needs.

MedHealthWorld covers the impact of mobile and connected health applications on patients and healthcare providers.


Scott Guthery is co-author of 2 books on smart card development, 2 books on SIM and mobile application development and an inventor on 34 issued patents including the original Java Card´┐Ż patent. To read more of Scott's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard

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