Hospitals ga-ga over RFID

Tagging babies with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips has gained traction in the Western Australian healthcare system with strong interest in an industry-leading trial.

The maternity ward of Osborne Park Hospital, Perth, has had few difficulties tracking the movement of its tiny assets since an RFID-based security system was installed in February, according to clinical nurse manager Graeme Boardley.

Battery-powered tags are attached to a newborn's leg using a rubber band. The devices send signals to readers installed at three- to four-metre intervals along corridor walls, which transmit the signals to the asset locator terminal.

On screen, red icons with each child's name shows the babies' locations within the ward. This is updated every four seconds, and can track the infants as they are carried by parents or staff.

The catalyst for the security measures was the kidnapping of a baby girl from the ward in January last year.

A state-wide review of all maternity security ensued, and Osborne Park Hospital was appointed as a pilot site for e-tagging and as such, the public hospital received special funding before its tender.

No specific technology was earmarked for the e-tagging project, but RFID proved best, Boardley said.

"We selected the best system. Some [proposals] didn't have RFID."

"We decided on cost, and that the system had to work underwater for [babies'] baths etc," he said.

The hospital chose the Honeywell Asset Locator, which with three years of ongoing support, "came in just under our $50,000 budget", Boardley said.

The system took two to three weeks to install, during which time about 40 square metres of cabling was laid throughout the (estimated) 500-square metre ward.

A critical part of the risk management system is its alarm capability. Sensors near two exit points of the ward will trigger the alarm if tags come within range.

The alarm will also sound if a tag is stationary (ie removed), or tampered with. The time allowed before the alarm is sounded can also be adjusted, Boardley said, which is helpful when dealing with babies.

"You'll find that babies are constantly moving, even when they're sleeping," he said.

The hospital has had the occasional false alarm with the system, he said.

"We're finding that with some of the larger women, at the odd time where a baby's being fed and the mother has her back to the reader, it affects the signal.

"But this is overcome by increasing the area covered the signal," Boardley said.

The system will later be linked to all staff pagers.

The ward has recently received new versions of the tags featuring an easier attachment mechanism and rechargable batteries, Boardley said.

"The batteries last three to four weeks, and the average stay here is two days for babies," he said.

The pilot will run until both the hospital and vendor are satisfied with the system.

While there had been no unexpected benefits from the RFID system, it had delivered "peace of mind" as a risk management tool, he said.

The system has attracted several representatives from other public and private hospitals interested in the technology, according to Boardley.

The RFID system will be adopted by a South Australian hospital in August, Boardley said.

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