Medical device manufacturers have an opportunity to reduce medical errors and streamline workflows through RFID use.

Sean Houchin, Product Manager

October 20, 2021

6 Min Read
RFID for hospital infusion pump
Image by Parentingupstream from Pixabay

What if an infusion pump, IV drip, or medical cart could help prevent medical errors and streamline patient billing? With radio-frequency Identification (RFID) of consumables, operators, and patients, they can. An RFID system that identifies both people and product could enable device manufacturers to improve the safety and security of their systems, protect revenue streams for consumables, and improve user satisfaction.

Consumable Authentication for Healthcare

Consumables used in a clinical context include medications, non-drug therapies (such as IV bags), and a broad range of medical supplies and equipment such as syringes, needles, catheters, tubing, and tape. Manufacturers of medical devices that use or dispense consumable supplies, such as infusion pumps, have a vested interest in ensuring that the right materials are used with their devices.

Medical device manufacturers may not produce medications or consumable supplies themselves. But to improve patient safety and protect the integrity of their devices, they still need to ensure that medications or supplies come from approved vendors and meet device specifications and quality and safety standards. They also have an opportunity to help their buyers reduce medical errors and streamline workflows with a robust consumable authentication solution.

Consumable authentication can benefit medical device manufacturers, their partners, and their customers in a number of ways. The right solution can:

  • Protect revenue streams for consumables for device manufacturers or approved vendors.

  • Improve patient safety by ensuring that only approved and non-expired medications and consumables can be used.

  • Enable better inventory control for hospitals and usage tracking for vendors.


How It Works: Tracking Medical Consumables with RFID

RFID relies on a reader that picks up a signal from an RFID transponder, which can be integrated into a card (e.g., an ID badge), a token (e.g., a key fob), or a tag. For consumable identification, the tag can be embedded into a product label. The tag transmits information to an RFID reader using either high-frequency (HF) or low-frequency (LF) radio waves. (Some RFID readers can also read Bluetooth low energy {BLE} or near-field communication {NFC} signals from smartphones.)

For consumable authentication, the RFID reader can be embedded directly in the device in which the consumable is used, providing an integrated and automated solution with little need for user intervention. Alternatively, the RFID reader can be connected as an external device in which all the user has to do is scan the RFID tag on the packaging or label for the consumable before installing it—a process that takes less than a second.

The system can be configured to provide an alert if the wrong product has been loaded or if the product is expired. For connected devices, the reader can also send information to a backend system for inventory control.


Closing the Loop: Connecting Patient ID, Provider ID, & Medical Products

The same RFID reader used for consumable identification can also be used to identify people. Clinical staff typically carry an ID badge for building entry and access to secure areas within the building. The badge can also be leveraged to authenticate medical device users.

In a closed-loop scenario, the clinician, patient, and consumable product being used are all identified using the same RFID reader. For example, imagine a nurse setting up an infusion pump for a patient. He waves his ID badge over the reader embedded in the pump. The pump authenticates his user ID and confirms that he is an authorized user, which unlocks device controls. He then scans the RFID tag embedded in a patient bracelet to identify the patient he is treating. Finally, he scans the medication before loading it into the pump.

This system improves patient safety, reduces medical errors, and streamlines hospital billing. It can:

  • Ensure that only trained and authorized users can access medical device controls.

  • Accurately link consumable product or medication use to the patient for proper billing.

  • Automate the process of updating electronic health records (EHRs) by recording medications delivered or treatments provided.

  • Reduce medical errors by providing an alert if the wrong product is loaded into the device, if the product is expired, or if the medication used does not match the medication prescribed for the patient.


The Benefits of RFID for Healthcare

RFID offers significant benefits compared with manual entry, bar codes, or other material authentication methods.

  • RFID is more secure and reliable than bar codes or printed QR codes, which are easy to counterfeit and may be compromised if they are torn, wrinkled, or exposed to moisture. With RFID, encryption can be used for highly secure data transmission that is nearly impossible to counterfeit. This ensures that only consumables produced by the device manufacturer or an approved vendor can be used in the device.

  • RFID eliminates user error associated with manual entry of product numbers and is fast, easy, and frustration-free for users. Eliminating manual entry speeds up workflows for busy clinicians, improving user satisfaction.

  • RFID stores more information than a bar code, QR code, or manual entry number. In addition to the product number, the RFID tag can store information such as lot number, manufacturing date, expiration date, and other unique identifiers. This additional information can be used for enhanced usage tracking by the manufacturer or the hospital’s purchasing department. It also improves safety and quality by ensuring that expired materials cannot be used.

  • RFID is fast and contactless, minimizing touchpoints that can become contaminated in a clinical environment.


Selecting the Right RFID Reader for Healthcare Consumables

There are many types of RFID readers on the market, and they aren’t all the same. Many reader manufacturers create readers that only read their own transponder technologies—a serious limitation for device manufacturers selling into international markets or catering to vendors or end-users with their own transponder technology preferences. There are several factors that medical device manufacturers should consider when choosing an RFID reader for medical consumable authentication purposes.

  • How many transponder technologies does the reader support? Look for a multi-technology reader that supports both LF and HF technologies from all major global manufacturers for maximum flexibility. This is especially important if you are working with multiple third-party consumable vendors or want to enable both user and material authentication with the same device. If end-users are transitioning to smartphone authentication technologies for personnel identification, make sure the reader is also compatible with BLE and/or NFC.

  • How easy is it to update the reader? Updates may be needed to add transponder technologies or address emerging security concerns. Readers that support contactless updates or remote updates will extend the life of your devices.

  • Does the device have the right form factor, communication interfaces, and operating power requirements? The reader should be easy to embed into your device without making significant design or engineering changes.

  • Does the reader support advanced encryption and custom configurations? Look for a reader with a robust software package that allows you to choose your security configuration and customize behaviors (for example, setting light and sound sequences for user feedback).

  • Is the reader certified for use in all of the regions in which your device is sold? Choosing a reader already certified for sale in your target markets will speed time to market and simplify the sales process.

To learn more about choosing an RFID reader, download Eleven Considerations for Embedded System RFID Readers.

About the Author(s)

Sean Houchin

Product Manager, Elatec Inc.

Sean Houchin is the product manager for Elatec Inc. in Palm City, FL, and part of the global Elatec GmbH product management team. He has more than 20 years of experience in product development, management, and applications engineering. Sean is an expert in RFID technology, optoelectronic and fiber optic video, audio, and data transmission equipment for military and commercial applications and is a veteran of the United States Navy.

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