Wireless Chips: a Threat to Hospital Patients?

A type of device commonly used on tracking tags for medical supplies could cause potentially dangerous interference with critical care medical devices — including pacemakers — new research suggests.

A study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are often used to track medical supplies and devices, may interfere with the functioning of some medical devices and could potentially cause serious harm to a patient utilizing a critical care device.

This study highlights the dangers that can be associated with otherwise beneficial technological developments, says study author Dr. Donald Berwick, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard University's School of Public Health.

"The study highlights the fact that we really need our healthcare system to understand technologies are always double-edged," Berwick explained. "They can bring benefit but usually also have concurrent hazards, so we need to be sophisticated and wise about these technologies and how we use them."

The RFID tags used to track medical supplies are similar to the security tags attached to clothing in stores, or those used for security access cards. The tags generate signals with radio frequencies to "communicate" with one another.

Researchers at Vrije University in Amsterdam tested 41 critical care medical devices, including pacemakers, ventilators, IV pumps and anesthesia machines, among others. They moved three types of RFID tags from two different manufacturers around each device at different distances to detect the point at which the machine malfunctioned, if at all.

Out of 123 tests, they detected 34 instances in which interference had occurred. After an interference issue was detected, the researchers asked five intensive care doctors to qualify the interferences as minor, moderate, or severely hazardous to a patient who might be using the machine.

Of the 34 interference issues identified, the independent panel of intensive care doctors classified 22 of the interferences as hazardous.

Berwick added that although this research has identified a serious potential hazard with this technology in the healthcare setting, he would not recommend that the use of RFID tags in hospitals be discontinued.

"This was studied in an ICU room with no patients, so I think there should be immediate further study to see if the kind of interference they detected is replicable and if it could it hurt patient outcomes," Berwick said. "I think it would be overreacting to turn off the [RFID tags] or remove them from Intensive Care Units."

A Ubiquitous Threat?

Indeed, the looming question mark left by this research is how damaging the RFID tag's interference with medical devices can be to a patient, and whether patients utilizing these medical devices should be wary of coming too close to the nearly unavoidable RFID tags.

Although the most common use of RFID tags is to improve the tracking of inventory for a business or manufacturer, the tags seem to have crept into almost every imaginable place in our society: from our passports, to our tollbooths, to our library books and our bus passes, the RFID tags surround our day-to-to lives.

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