Wednesday, April 13, 2011

RFID tags in Medicine

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags can track people, equipment, and paperwork in a variety of settings. They are currently used to track objects ranging from military equipment and nuclear materials to more mundane retail merchandise. These chips are either passive, transmitting a signal only when an electronic device requests information, or active, constantly transmitting a readable signal.

RFID tags are gaining traction in medicine. Surgeons can use "smart" sponges embedded with RFID tags in the operating room, for example. Separate devices can electronically count the number of sponges used and scan the surgical site to make sure none are left in the body, where they can cause pain, infections, and other problems. RFID-embedded identification bracelets placed on infants in maternity wards and linked to alarms prevent unauthorized people from taking the infants from the area.

Outside the hospital wards, RFID-tagged pharmaceutical containers make it easier for the FDA to track the drugs' movement (especially the movement of controlled substances such as the pain reliever OxyContin) and to verify that the drugs are not counterfeit. Some paper medical records have been RFID-tagged to help health care workers find misplaced files.

The Affordable Care Act encourages the use of technology such as electronic medical records and RFID tags to improve medical care and (not coincidentally) to stretch health care dollars by decreasing administrative costs and other expenses. Technology like RFID chips, which can prevent expensive and damaging human errors, should remain just one tool used by health care providers, and does not relieve them of their responsibility to provide the best care they can. Tools can help them with data collection and analysis, but empathy, observation, and insight remain distinctly human, and necessary for good health care as well.

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