Wireless Chips: a Threat to Hospital Patients?

But what if a heart patient who has an implanted defibrillator tries on a t-shirt in a clothing store that has an RFID security tag attached to it? Would the radio waves emitting from the tag cause enough interference to make the implanted device would malfunction?

These are questions that most experts say we just don't have the answers to yet.

"It really depends on the power generated by the device causing the interference," said Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer of Harvard Medical School and of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "And unfortunately, in some cases with certain devices, we don't really know what kind of interference they could cause to a machine being used by a patient."

However, experts say it is important to distinguish between passive RFID tags and active RFID tags.

Passive tags are more commonly used in hospital settings, and because they have no internal power supply, they are less likely to interfere with many devices. These RFID tags require a "reader" device to detect their radio wave emissions, such as when an RFID wristband on a hospital patient is scanned by a "reader" machine.

Active tags, however, do contain internal power supplies and constantly broadcast their signal to a reader. These types of RFID tags are more likely to emit radio waves that can interfere with medical devices.

Today, RFID tags are used to track medications, medical equipment, and sometimes even patients within a hospital.

For instance, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center uses passive RFID tags to track babies in the neonatal intensive care unit by way of RFID wristbands. Each baby's RFID wristband corresponds to an RFID tag on the container his or her mother's milk. This way, the RFID scanner is used to ensure that the infant receives the right milk, and even leaves a traceable audit trail.

But because the use of RFID tags in the hospital setting has gone from "hardly at all" to "couldn't survive without them" in a relatively short period of time, many experts are wondering what concurrent risks might be associated with the widespread use of the technology.

Some Hospitals Taking Steps

In order for the RFID-dependent healthcare system to work, Halamka says the proper precautions must always be taken.

In 2001, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center instituted a policy requiring that all hospital workers are trained on the potential interferences caused by RFID devices. Moreover, they require that all devices generating electromagnetic interference be kept at least three feet away from patients.

Halamka added that certain critical care devices are even shielded so as to avoid any potential interference by a device emitting radio or electromagnetic waves. Moreover, hospital workers in the Clinical Engineering Group at Beth Israel are constantly testing any new device that enters into the hospital to make sure that it doesn't interfere with existing equipment used for patient care.

However, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center seems to be far ahead of the curve when it comes to preemptive precautions against any interference to medical devices caused by RFID tags; very few other medical centers have instituted any policies to protect from interference caused by these tags.

Dr. Richard O'Brien, an emergency physician at Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Penn., and the spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, believes that the policies at Beth Israel should be the standard for medical centers around the country.

"I believe the message is … that in the critical care environment, we have to have on site testing and follow international standards," O'Brien said.

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