RFID and healthcare: a revolutionary friendship
Today, smart radio tags, known technically as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), can be used for the storing and remote retrieval of data from, for example, patients, drugs or tissue samples. The integrated electronic circuit in the tag stores information which can be updated whenever necessary – a crucial feature that could revolutionise the information process in hospitals and improve healthcare throughout Europe.
Back in 2003, Dr Daniel Grandt, head of the Internal Medicine Department at the Saarbruecken Clinic in Germany, discovered the potential of RFID to improve the quality of treatments. A prototype was developed, shaped like a watch; using a "reader", a doctor could access patients’ information, e.g., their illness, medical records and current drug treatments. The result: faster treatments and better traceability of prescribed drugs.
However, it soon became clear that there was a risk of information contamination from one patient to the next as doctors visited successive patients. To solve this problem, Simone Grandt launched a new RFID project: the new approach replaces the "readers" with mobile telephones. The RFID tag sends the patient's data to the doctor's mobile phone, which in turn sends the data to the doctor's computer via a Wi-Fi link.
This process is particularly helpful for doctors who have a large case load of patients. Moreover, dedicated software helps doctors to prescribe drugs. Indeed, according to Dr Grandt, studies show that "around 5 percent of patients need hospital treatment for the side effects of drugs". With about 50 000 approved drugs in Europe and more than 8 000 known side effects, it is difficult for doctors to remember all the information about each drug. The software alerts the doctor to possible side effects given the patient’s medical status and history.
RFID is also being tested at the Institute Paoli Calmettes (IPC), in Marseille, France. Its Centre de Thérapie Cellulaire et Génique hosts one of Europe's largest tumour banks, with around 120 000 specimens for studying cancer development. Since 2000, RFID tags have been undergoing tests for labelling and identifying specimens. For RFID labelling, with there is one major problem: tumour samples are stored in fridges at -80°C or in liquid nitrogen tanks at -180°C. RFID tags do not work below -80°C. This means the chips become inactive and cannot be read or rewritten. Only once the temperature climbs can the tag again be of any use.
Working with RFID developers, Paoli-Calmettes' researchers are attempting to overcome such hurdles. They are convinced RFID labelling can be a real advantage for managing the Tumour Bank as the current labelling method uses barcodes which cannot hold as much information. In addition, the information cannot be rewritten and is not as simple to read as the signal sent from the RFID tags.
In response to some critics who argue that the technology is an intrusion into people's lives, the researchers involved believe that, as long as the method is well managed, sensitive information can be protected while giving the opportunity for better treatment. However, as healthcare staff underline, more investment is required before ethical and technical issues can be resolved. Only then can Europeans receive the RFID benefits of more efficient healthcare.