ADVERTISEMENT
This article is from the In-Depth Report Modernizing Medicine: Health Care in the Information Age

RFID in the hospital: Not so private eyes are watching you

You’ve been tagged.

Hospitals are increasingly using electronic-monitoring equipment to track patients, employees and medical devices to prevent them from going the way of the Junior Mint Seinfeld’s Kramer infamously dropped into an open surgical patient.

The e-tracking software has been used for more than a decade by hospitals to prevent baby kidnappings, the Wall Street Journal reports today. But now hospitals are tagging patients with radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices to, among other things, cut down on emergency room waiting time by keeping track of how long each person has been in the ER. They're tagging employees to get a handle on departments that need staff or can spare them. And equipment is tagged so it can be easily located – and to prevent surgeons from inadvertently leaving it inside patients.

RFID tags are small, silicon chips containing information that’s captured remotely by computers that decode the data. About 10 percent of U.S. hospitals now use the devices, and the Journal reports that most hospitals will be using them within a decade.

But critics warn that such technology could violate privacy rights.

"Initially there was a real fear among the staff that management would somehow use this [tracking] information in a nefarious way, but we worked hard to mitigate that" by, for instance, keeping sensors out of staff bathrooms and break rooms, Linda Laskowski Jones, vice president of emergency services at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del., told the Journal.

Other healthcare providers said the tags have helped cut down on lost equipment – and the time it takes to locate it. "In the old days, I had to send five people looking in every nook and cranny for a blood-gas analyzer," Deborah Bahlman, manager of regional surgical services for Providence Health & Services in Portland, Ore., told the newspaper, "but now I can log into any PC and see exactly where it is sitting on a map."

To find out more about how RFID systems work and how they’re being used for a variety of purposes, take a look at our interactive graphic.

Image by iStockphoto/KMITU

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Special Universe

Get the latest Special Collector's edition

Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, Future

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X