How barcoding and RFID technology is supporting better tracking and visibility of assets within healthcare

Zebra Technologies' head of healthcare, Wayne Miller, discusses how track and trace technology is supporting the need for improved visibility of assets - including new bones - in the healthcare industry

The widespread use of RFID and 2D barcode technology will do more than just help to identify items within hospital stockrooms, but will also save the NHS tens of thousands of pounds and protect patients from potentially life-threatening mistakes, industry leaders said.

The use of barcodes is being encouraged across the NHS and news stories such as PIP breast implant and hip replacement scandals, in which it proved difficult for surgeons to trace those who had received specific devices and could be at risk, underpin the required need for change.

In response, over the past few years hospitals have begun adopting barcode technology, either using 2D barcodes that are read using a small computer, or radio frequency identification (RFID).

The current government wants a £22billion saving and is driving this through efficiency. It comes down to understanding what we have in the supply chain and what stock hospitals need and already have

Barcodes have been around for decades and are used extensively within the retail and manufacturing sectors. Direct part marking (DPM) is used to identify implants. It works by etching a unique barcode onto a product. The process leaves a reflective and non-reflective surface, so creates an indentation, which is picked up by a scanner. The technology is relatively inexpensive and is therefore popular within NHS trusts.

RFID is more technical and involves applying tags to items, boxes or pallets. The tag, complete with a small antenna, emits a radio frequency signal that is picked up and interpreted by a special wireless reader, conveying information from the tag about the item it is fixed to.

In most sectors both technologies are used mainly to track items and products, particularly within warehouses and during delivery.

But their potential use within the healthcare sector is much wider.

Speaking to BBH this week, Wayne Miller, director EMEA for healthcare practice at Zebra Technologies, said: “Initially hospitals are using barcode technology for patient identification, so patients will wear a wristband with a dedicated patient ID number. This can then be checked against medication and any surgical procedures, ensuring the right patient receives the right treatment.”

This would be particularly useful if there were to be another scandal like that involving the PIP breast implants.

“There are still thousands of patients who received the implants whose identity we do not know because we didn’t trace products to patients,” said Miller.

“Using barcodes or RFID tags, you can put a wristband on the patient, but also on every blood sample, medication, and asset such as heart monitors or medical devices.”

Wayne Miller

The technology can also help to beat counterfeiters who are increasingly selling low-grade or faulty medical devices online.

“Barcodes will help to trace equipment back to the supplier to ensure a trust is getting exactly what it needs,” said Miller.

“Embedded in the technology is a unique product number and information on the date and country of manufacture and the batch details.”

In addition, the use of chips means qualified clinicians are not needed to check in every delivery. Instead, they will have ordered the relevant items, and then the RFID tags or barcodes are scanned and approved on arrival.

“With this technology it is easy to track items throughout the supply chain,” said Miller.

“You can not only check the right item has arrived, but check it as it moves around the hospital.” Knowing where something is at any one time means hospitals do not have to keep thousands of pounds worth of stock they may never use, or re-order stock they have mislaid. You can just call up the stockroom on a computer and see exactly what you have and if anything is missing, you are able to put it in ‘sniff’ mode and search for it.

RFID, in particular, gives us a huge amount of information on a particular product. We can store data such as clinical variation and, in turn, drive better value for the health service and improved treatment for patients

“This is a huge benefit to healthcare trusts, who cannot afford to hold surplus stock.”

But probably one of the most-important benefits of adopting RFID or barcode technology is enhanced patient safety.

Not only will patients be easily identified if there is concern over a particular product or procedure, but the introduction of ID tags also means other data can be stored, such as recovery rates between various surgeons and using different branded products.

“RFID, in particular, gives us a huge amount of information on a particular product,” said Miller.

“We can store data such as clinical variation and, in turn, drive better value for the health service and improved treatment for patients.”

He added: “The current government wants a £22billion saving and is driving this through efficiency. It comes down to understanding what we have in the supply chain and what stock hospitals need and already have.

“By looking and this, and the other patient data, we can improve business practice within hospital trusts. This then starts to drive much wider efficiencies.”

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