Forty hours is a lot of time — for most of us, it’s a full working week. Nurses in healthcare settings, however, spend this amount of time searching for medical equipment each month, according to a NursingTimes survey. 1 What’s more, in 16 percent of cases, respondents said that they had given up the search after failing to find a piece of equipment. With increasing demands on the sector for a more streamlined approach to healthcare, this article explores how radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging can be used to locate assets that healthcare workers need to do their jobs more effectively.
The underutilization and loss of medical assets costs the healthcare sector millions of dollars each year. Hospitals that are particularly susceptible are those with multiple buildings and floors, or that have thousands of assets. Getting real-time or last-known location information for these often-critical assets can considerably improve operational performance. Used at numerous medical facilities across the United States, RFID technology enables workers to assign each asset with unique tracking information, which is stored in a tag attached to the asset and located using an RFID receiver.
However, there are several different types of RFID tags and receivers, so which are the most qualified for the job? Passive RFID tags are the cheapest solution, so these are often used to track lower value assets or discardable ones, such as blood vials or test tubes. These tags have no internal power source, so they are entirely reliant on energy transmitted from an RFID receiver. Consisting of an integrated circuit and an internal antenna, passive tags are often embedded into adhesive labels that are quick and easy to attach, or sometimes into the device itself.
Alternatively, active RFID tags utilize a battery, which enables them to transmit a unique ID and location information every time they pass an RFID receiver or at preset intervals. To transmit information, active RFID tags contain a beacon or transponder, which is powered by batteries. Active RFID tags are more expensive than passive RFID ones, but they can be worth the cost to ensure more accurate tracking of higher value items such as medical devices (e.g., feeding devices and infusion pumps) or other equipment (e.g., wheelchairs and beds).
With regard to the battery, size can be a key consideration. A compact battery can help to reduce the size of the tag and, therefore, make it less detectable and harder to remove from the device. Ultralife’s Thin Cells®, for example, are discrete batteries measuring as thin as 1.1 mm. They retain more than 98 percent of their capacity after one year of storage at room temperature, meaning they are always ready to use regardless as to how the medical devices are stored. This can prove useful in hospitals where equipment could be left anywhere after use.
Finally, there is a type of tag that sits between active and passive, known as semipassive RFID, which reflects a small fraction of the power emitted by an RFID receiver. Because it does not have an onboard transmitter, the read range of a semipassive tag can be limited. Therefore, semipassive RFID tags are best suited for applications where tagged items stay within close range of an RFID receiver or can be scanned regularly, which may be achievable in a smaller hospital or clinic but could prove challenging in a larger one.
Active RFID tags, however, contain a beacon/transponder that can transmit signals to a receiver more than 20 m away (sometimes up to 150 m), depending on frequency levels and other factors. To further expand this distance, in larger hospitals or those with several buildings, instead of buying multiple receivers, a hospital can utilize its existing Wi-Fi nodes, which may already cover most of the hospital grounds and are likely to be networked together to share data. However, there may be some areas of a hospital that its Wi-Fi network does not reach or where existing nodes may not be compatible with RFID. In these instances, handheld RFID readers can be a useful option.
Because handheld RFID readers may not be in continuous use, they are often powered by rechargeable batteries that are charged between use. For these types of readers, pre-engineered, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, such as Ultralife’s Soft Packs, are suitable. The batteries come in voltages ranging from 3.7 to 14.8 V and have a long cycle life. For original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that require different voltages or that have bespoke requirements (size, performance, etc.), custom battery packs are also an option.
When it comes to tracking a hospital’s assets and devices, battery-powered active RFID offers an excellent choice for real-time or last-known location tracking. Selecting the optimum non-rechargeable battery to power the tags and rechargeable battery to power a handheld reader (if required) is critical to attaining the desired results.
- “MGM Solutions: 6000 Hours Per September Wasted on Nurses Finding Lost Equipment,” Healthcare Facilities Today.