RFID has “a wide field of applications which so far we haven’t fully explored”

By March 31, 2014

The effects that Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) might have on human beings are still largely unknown, but RFID applications used directly on a patient or in the care environment have the potential to improve patients’ hospital care experience.

Speakers from all walks of life came together at a conference in mid-March on the subject of La RFID à l’épreuve de l’innovation responsable (‘RFID: a test of responsible innovation’), hosted by prestigious higher education establishment  Télécom ParisTech to pool their ideas on how to ensure a responsible approach to innovation in this field. Guillaume Sacco, a doctor and member of the Centre d’Innovation et d’Usages en Santé (Centre for Innovation and Procedures in Healthcare) at the University Hospital Centre in Nice, who took part in a conference session, later talked to L’Atelier about possible direct physical uses of Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) on patients and the need to assess the risks and benefits.

During your round table session, you talked about the risk-benefit ratio for RFID. Do you think RFID involves more dangers than benefits in the healthcare field?

Given that we don’t yet have all the information, it’s hard to judge. In order to assess the benefits versus the risks you have to know what those risks are, but the problem at the present time is that we haven’t yet been able to identify exactly what the risks might be. This is certainly due to a general lack of prudence when it comes to the long term effects of technology. However, we do need to think about the idea of using RFID directly on patients and in applications in the patient’s immediate or wider environment. It may be that today, not knowing what the risks might be is preventing us from taking full advantage of the true benefits of RFID and antennae used in close proximity to the patient. Nevertheless, the use of RFID in the patient’s environment and to help organise and streamline healthcare procedures does have a direct impact on the patient. For example, a patient who has to wait less time in the corridor, who receives the right medicine at the right time, will certainly recognise that the quality of his/her treatment has improved. So I think that all these indirect applications, which don’t entail any direct physical contact with the patient, can still be very valuable.

What opportunities do you see for using RFID directly on patients?

RFID has a wide field of applications which so far we haven’t fully explored. I was talking earlier about traceability of blood products and storage of samples, but there are many other examples. One would be insertion of tubes in the operating theatre, where RFID might enable you to position the tubes precisely without making any trial insertions.  In the same vein, there have been many studies on how to count dressings and instruments to prevent them getting lost inside the patient during the operation. At the end of an operation, a substantial amount of time is wasted checking that all the compresses used have actually been removed from the patient. Now if we had dressings with passive RFID tags and the rubbish bins were fitted with antennae, the system could automatically count the swabs we threw away. This would save time and shorten the overall time spent in the operating theatre.

Do you think there are alternatives to RFID or has RFID become indispensable?

Well, yes, there are alternatives to RFID as regards traceability, for example systems such as the barcodes that are currently in use. These systems are much cheaper and more economical. In fact the main obstacle to using RFID today is the high cost of the technology. An RFID tag is thirty to a hundred times more expensive, depending on the type of tag – active or passive – than a barcode system or WiFi transmission. RFID isn’t a total solution; it can be used to complement other technologies. We need to work out how to integrate one system with another. RFID is not a solution for everything, just as GSM and WiFi aren’t either. We have to work out how to use these various technologies and see where each can fit in.

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