German hospital uses RFID to track medication

Mention RFID and most people automatically think about logistics. But who says the technology can't also save lives?

The University Hospital of Jena, in Germany, is collaborating with SAP AG and Intel Corp. to test RFID (radio frequency identification) technology for administering medication.

"Intensive care units are stressful environments where mistakes can happen, such as patients receiving the wrong medication," Martin Specht, senior consultant for intensive care and head of data processing at the University Hospital of Jena, said last week in an interview at SAP's Sapphire customer event in Paris. "These errors can be fatal. With RFID, we hope to significantly reduce the chance of error."

For the pilot, the hospital is using hardware components supplied by Intel, including port scanners, radio devices and RFID tags, as well as SAP's auto-ID infrastructure platform to identify and track medication in real time from the hospital's pharmacy to its intensive care unit and the individual patient. Nurses match medication individually to the patient by using a handheld device to check the reference codes on the patient's RFID bracelet. In addition to matching codes, nurses are also automatically linked to the patient's data on file in the hospital's IT system, gaining instant access to detailed information presented on the handheld screen.

To ensure a secure end-to-end delivery from the pharmacy to the patient, the Jena pilot requires RFID tags on each dose of medication, pharmacy transport box and steel container used by the internal transport system.

"This way, even if a container of medication is tipped over and drugs get mixed up, the individually tagged unit doses are quickly identified," Specht said.

The pilot currently involves 24 beds in the intensive care unit but will be expanded to another 65 by October.

In a next step, Specht hopes to deploy RFID technology in other hospital units and for other applications, as well. "One very interesting application is tagging technical equipment," he said. "We have a technical inspection every two years, requiring that we locate all our equipment."

The cost of RFID chips is an issue, Specht concedes, and he would like to see prices decrease. "But errors in administering in medication are much more expensive than RFID tags, especially if they lead to a malpractice lawsuit," he said. "We can live with the costs if we can increase patient safety."

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