Cellular phones aren't the only devices that might cause interference in hospitalsusing radio-frequency identification technology in patient settings could also lead to unintended medical harm, industry leaders say.
Electromagnetic fields generated by RFID devicestouted as a patient-safety technique to keep track of supplies, medical tests and samples, and peoplecould cause medical equipment to malfunction, according to a recent study of medical devices in Amsterdam published in the June 25 Journal of the American Medical Association.
Hospitals should ensure that they have policies established to mitigate that potential patient harm, said John Halamka, a physician and chief information officer at CareGroup Health System, Boston, and the Harvard Medical School. "This is a problem, absolutely," Halamka said.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, part of the CareGroup system, uses low-power, active RFID transmitters to track locations of supplies in the 585-bed hospital and does not allow any device generating electromagnetic fields to be used closer than 3 feet from a patient, Halamka said.
Hospitals should study the impact these devices have in their critical-care units, said Schuyler Sanderson, physician lead for the Mayo Clinic's RFID program.
Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo has used a passive RFID system since March 2007 to track endoscopy specimens from point of collection to laboratory testing, which has worked well to reduce data-entry time and increase physician-nurse communication, Sanderson wrote in an e-mail. "There has been near elimination of specimen labeling discrepancies," he wrote, adding that there have been no documented malfunctions in the system to date. The RFID system at Mayo operates at a different frequency than the one tested by the Dutch researchers.
RFID has been slow overall to catch on in the U.S. healthcare industry; hospitals still favor cheaper bar-coding options for tracking supply chains, but they should still pay attention to studies of electromagnetic interference of any medical device, Halamka said.
The controlled, nonclinical study included random tests of two types of RFID: passive and active systems. Passive RFID tags do not have their own internal power and must be activated by the electromagnetic field generated by the reader device. Active systems include battery-powered tags that do not require activation by the reader's electromagnetic field.
Researchers found electromagnetic interference from RFID systems led to incidentsdefined as having an unintended change in equipment functionin 34, or 28%, out of 123 tests of 41 different medical devices.
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