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RFID makes strides in medical implant and hospital supply chain/re-stocking programs

06/20/11 | John R. Johnson | email

Research is evolving rapidly when it comes to using RFID technology in the medical and healthcare community. This week, researchers from the University of Cincinnati unveiled the results of their research about using RFID in the internal hospital supply chain. The data shows that hospitals can save at least 18 percent in labor costs by utilizing RFID to simplify manual re-stocking tasks.

And researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a system that will soon allow RFID tags to be embedded on prosthetics like replacement knees and hips to provide better tracking of product recalls, infections, and routine follow-up exams.

While item level tagging at the retail level is exploding, the opportunities on the horizon in healthcare could thrust the technology to ubiquitous status in the medical and hospital environments.

The healthcare sector is expected to see dramatic growth when it comes to the use of RFID. While global shipments of RFID transponders in healthcare totaled 113 million units in 2010, that number is expected to climb to 185 million units this year. By 2015, VDC Research expects that the healthcare market will consume 884 million RFID tags, representing annual growth of just over 50 percent. It's important to note that healthcare does not include pharmaceutical goods, another sector experiencing rapid growth.

As for the tagging of medical implants, University of Pittsburgh researchers predict that several million tags could be used in two to three years. Nearly 750,000 Americans have knee or hip replacement surgery each year, an indication of how big the global market is for tagging medical implants. Dr. Marlin Mickle, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, and one of the researchers in charge of developing the RFID readers to be used with the tags, says that the RFID implant system could be up and running by the end of the year. First, it must gain FDA approval, a process that could take six months.

"Tagging of implantable medical devices can provide tremendous value to the manufacturer, healthcare professionals and patients, especially when integrated with sensor technology," says Drew Nathanson, director of research operations at VDC Research. "Leading uses include identification of the device and the healthcare professionals who installed it and maintained it, and device and patient health. We are only at the beginning … there is significant potential in this market."

The technology developed at the University of Pittsburgh uses human tissue instead of air as a conduit for radio waves. The noninvasive system, known as Ortho-Tag, features a wireless chip attached to the implant and a handheld reader that would allow physicians to view critical information about artificial knees, hips, and other internal prosthetics -- as well as the condition of the surrounding tissue -- that currently can be difficult to track.

The RFID tag would have information about the patient, the implant, and the procedure uploaded to it prior to an operation, says New Jersey-based orthopedic surgeon Lee Berger, the CEO of Ortho-Tag, Inc., and inventor of the tagged implant. In addition, sensors within the chip would gauge the pressure on the implant, the chemical balance and temperature of the tissue, and the presence of harmful organisms, which would allow potential infections to be treated before they become serious.

Infection control and prevention is likely to be the first and largest ROI area when the system is put in place. "The biggest problem with failures are the ones that become infected because that turns into a six-figure problem for the hospital," says Mickle. "The hospital has to take it out and there is a lot of patient discomfort, so that is likely to be the first place where the benefit shows up."

Berger says that the Ortho-Tag will likely be attached to implants by device manufacturers. He is currently negotiating with three implant manufacturers. Ortho-Tag would distribute the software and probe to physicians. For people with existing orthopedic devices, the company is considering producing wallet-sized cards with an affixed RFID tag uploaded with information about the patient and the implant, Mickle said.

"There has to be accountability for objects implanted in the body, and we hope that this technology will finally make orthopedic devices much easier to monitor and, thus, safer for patients," says Mickle.

The University of Cincinnati analysis of hospital supply chains – how hospitals stock nursing stations with hundreds of medicines, materials and even office supplies – reveals that RFID could improve efficiencies by 18 percent.

The research, to be presented on June 22 at the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science Healthcare Conference in Montreal, has implications for affecting the significant costs associated with hospital supplies. On average, the study says that supplies and inventory account for 30 to 40 percent of an average hospital's budget.

Using RFID in re-stocking procedures could also result in an average 38 percent reduction in the need for out-of-cycle replenishment, or "we need it now" emergencies, which are costly in terms of labor and time usage by employees, not to mention a potential risk for patients.

"Hospitals want to hit the right balance of sufficient, but not too many supplies," says Claudia Rosales, a recently graduated doctoral student in quantitative analysis now at Michigan State University. "Keeping unnecessary levels of inventory can increase costs significantly. But lack of sufficient inventory may hinder patient care and disrupt nursing activities. So, there's a cost associated with that too."

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