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7/2/2008
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RFID Can Have "Hazardous" Impact On Hospital Equipment

A recently published study could prompt the medical industry to re-evaluate its growing use of RFID.

The medical industry is increasingly looking to radio frequency identification for equipment tracking and even human implantation, but a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that RFID can interfere with medical devices in hospitals, posing "potentially hazardous" situations.

The revelation potentially serves up a big blow to the RFID industry, which views hospitals and medicine as one of its highest growth areas. But the problem could be abated by the use of systems that emit less power than what was used in the JAMA-published study, claim some tech vendors who sell such systems to the medical market.

The June 25 article describes a nonclinical study by the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, in which both an active 125-kHz and a passive 868-MHz RFID system were assessed for electromagnetic interference with 41 medical devices, including IV pumps and defibrillators.

Each device was tested three times, for a total of 123 tests, and there were 22 instances of interference classified as "hazardous" to patient care, according to the study. Two instances were classified as creating a "significant" adverse impact on patient care and 22 as having a "light" adverse impact. Passive RFID signals proved the most problematic; average distances between RFID readers and medical devices in the study were 30 centimeters.

The study concluded that hospitals and clinics using RFID in a critical-care environment should be required to conduct on-site tests for electromagnetic interference and keep RFID systems updated with international standards.

Hospitals are increasingly using RFID in combination with wireless area networks to track the location of equipment within hospitals and even patients and staff, using things such as RFID-chipped wristbands. There are even some instances of startup tech companies testing RFID chips that can be implanted in critically ill patients, allowing medical or emergency response personnel to view the medical histories of unconscious patients via an RFID reader.

In a written response to the JAMA article, the chief technology officer at Awarepoint, a company that provides RFID systems and wireless networks to hospitals, noted that power levels used by some RFID systems could be the primary cause of interference. Because Awarepoint uses wireless mesh technology, its systems generate "4,000 times less power than standard active and passive RFID readers," he said.

"Although this study was referring to nonclinical tests, the conclusions derived can still have a pronounced impact on how RFID and [location systems] play in patient care environments," said Awarepoint CTO Ron Hegli in a statement. "The bottom line is that vendors must take into consideration transmission power, electromagnetic interference, and frequency in their underlying technology."

Meanwhile, executives with Time Domain, a provider of ultrawideband location systems, issued a statement in response to the JAMA article that their company's ultrawideband technology "operates at transmit power levels more than 10,000 times smaller than the medical devices tested, and poses no significant interference threat in health care."

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