Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hospital RFID Tags Interfere with Medical Devices: Study

This probably shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who's experienced interference of one type or another from a wireless device of some kind. After all, we have all these signals filling the air around us. You would think someone would have tested this before.

But it took a team of Dutch researchers, the same group whose study last year indicated that cell phones could interfere with critical care equipment such as ventilators and external pacemakers, to come up with a similar result regarding RFID tags.

RFID tags are used to track various items, including - in hospitals - items like medicines and surgical tools. However, the study, to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that RFID tags can interfere with equipment such as respirators, external pacemakers and kidney dialysis machines.

The researchers tested medical equipment within meters of an RFID reader broadcasting a signal to nearby RFID tag. In 123 tests of 41 different pieces of equipment, the equipment malfunctioned 34 times (28%), with 22 of the problems serious enough to affect patients.

Erik Jan van Lieshout, a critical care physician at the University of Amsterdam led the study, as well as the prior cell phone study. He urged caution in reacting to the study. "Don't put on a frenetic ban on RFID systems. That would be as stupid as instituting systems without testing them."

Virtually none of the equipment had no interference at all, but older equipment seemed to be less susceptible to interference.

Last year the FDA issued a set of draft guidelines that identified RFID technology as a potential safety concern.

In fact, their guidelines said:
In general, a wired connection is more reliable than a wireless connection. FDA believes the more critical the medical device function and information passed via RF technology, the more important it is the wireless connection be robust. We recognize there are several concerns about the potential effects of RF wireless technology in and around medical devices related to the ability of the devices to function properly and the resultant safety of patients and operators, including:
  • RF wireless emissions from one product or device can affect the function of another
  • electromagnetic environments where medical devices are used may contain many sources of RF energy
  • the use of RF wireless technology in and around medical devices is increasing.
Despite this, there hasn't been much attention paid to RF interference and possible issues with regards to patient safety. Despite the fact that the FDA has no injury reports due to RFID interference with a medical device, this study shows that more attention needs to be paid to this subject, as increased RFID tag use could mean that such a safety record won't stand up over time.


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