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Medical RFID for patient, inventory tracking coming to hospitals

RFID tags for patients and inventory are still a few years away. Prudent CIOs should plan now, however, so their hospital wireless network can handle the added traffic.

This article, the third in a three-part series, examines the growing interest in medical radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and how it is poised to affect wireless network performance and infrastructure. Previous installments of this series provided tips for implementing a hospital wireless network and complying with Health Insurance Privacy and Portability (HIPAA) privacy regulations.

How much capacity is enough when it comes to expanding your hospital's wireless network? Only you know for sure, but ensure that you have enough to accommodate the growing number of medical RFID tags that will end up on your network. You might not have them now, but chances are you will in a few years -- and you'll be glad you built your infrastructure to support this technology.

Anticipating RFIDs was part of a major wireless rip-and-replace at the 121-bed Milford Regional Medical Center in Massachusetts. There's no plan to implement RFID patient tracking at the hospital, but his team is considering that systems tracking such items as wheelchairs and intravenous pumps could go online in the next few years, said computer technical specialist and wireless technician John Cameron. Employee badges could go online also. The wireless network is ready.

"We're trying to look as far out as we can," said Scott Vachon, manager of network services for LRGHealthcare, a two-hospital system in central New Hampshire that recently upgraded its wireless network across both hospitals and many satellite buildings housing ambulatory physician practices. "[Emerging RFID technology] was definitely a consideration when we spec'd out the project," he said.

A recent wireless expansion at the 900-resident Westminster Canterbury Richmond continuing-care retirement community in Virginia took into account such technologies coming down the pike as IP phones and medical RFID, said Robert Mann, the community's manager of information technology.

Emerging RFID technology was definitely a consideration when we spec'd out the project.

Scott Vachon, manager of network services, LRGHealthcare

Mann has not made the leap to either of those emerging technologies in the community's health care environment, but when the time comes to do it, he too will be ready. "We're looking at converging some of the technology we have . . . to our wireless," he said, citing the replacement of Polycom Inc. SpectraLink 900 MHz cordless phones in favor of IP phones that are richer in features and message directly into clinical applications. "We didn't have to put in as much Ethernet cable because we knew we were going to have the wireless."

Health care providers planning a medical RFID system rollout should conduct a site survey that factors in potential spectrum problems caused by many competing devices, as well as physical building issues that could weaken or block wireless coverage, Mann said. In problem areas -- for example, the emergency room, which is overloaded with devices, and the radiology department, whose lead-lined walls squelch wireless penetration -- providers should double up on access points, then test and retest the signal strength, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer.

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