How Hospitals Can Leverage RFID Technology to Optimize the Clinical Supply Chain

June 8, 2023
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By Will Shultz, Principal Consultant, Emerging Technology, Owens & Minor

Radio frequency identification (RFID) systems have long been used for accurate and efficient supply chain asset management across a wide range of industries, including automotive, manufacturing, retail and security. But more recently, the health sector, including hospitals and health systems, are turning to RFID technologies to optimize their supply chains and ensure that they have the right product in the right place at the right time.

In terms of medical and surgical asset management, RFID technology represents an ideal solution for hospitals that are looking to reduce the complexity of managing the inventories that support clinical activities in perioperative and procedural environments. RFID’s automation capabilities, ease-of-use, flexibility and facilitation of real-time visibility enables hospitals to manage the complexity of their inventories seamlessly – from high-cost, high-risk supplies such as bone and tissue or orthopedic implants requiring secure storage, to less expensive, yet still chargeable, supplies that have typically been stored within open cores and supply rooms.

How RFID Technology Works

RFID technology refers to a system of hardware – comprised of antennas embedded in RFID tags affixed to the assets being managed and RFID-enabled readers – and software that captures, analyzes and stores data in real-time. The RFID reader sends and receives signals from the antennas embedded within the RFID tags and transmits the recorded data to a software platform which provides end-users with real-time information regarding the status of their inventory, including which supplies are present, which supplies are missing, which supplies have moved between locations and which supplies are at risk of expiration. This is made possible because each RFID tag contains a unique serialized identifier that is perpetually associated with the asset that has been tagged.

Types of RFID Hardware Solutions

Hospitals generally deploy two RFID hardware solutions to meet the needs of their inventory:

  1. Secure Storage Solutions – for expensive, heavily controlled products, or those that require temperature control and monitoring, RFID-enabled cabinetry and freezers can be deployed. RFID-tagged supplies are stored within the cabinet or freezer, where they can only be accessed by an authorized user with an access badge. Each time the cabinet or freezer is opened and closed, the RFID reader records all items contained within and identifies any products that were added or removed, in addition to which user accessed the inventory.
  2. Open Storage Solutions – for lower cost chargeable products that don’t require temperature control and monitoring, RFID-enabled fixed readers with antenna arrays and RFID-enabled handheld devices can be deployed. The fixed readers, which are either ceiling or wall-mounted, are configured to record cycle counts of the storage space at pre-determined intervals. The RFID handheld can record cycle counts as frequently as desired, and the device is able to record cycle counts for even the largest supply locations that may contain thousands of tagged supplies in a matter of minutes.

Bridging Supply Chain Gaps

Many clinical teams still rely on standalone systems to manage supplies used during patient care. Because standalone systems may not be integrated with the hospital’s material management information system (MMIS) or enterprise resource planning system (ERP), the supply chain team may have limited, or in some cases, no visibility into their inventory levels.

Furthermore, many standalone systems used for clinical supply chain management are labor-intensive and time-consuming to use, making busy clinicians less likely to use them correctly. In today’s environment of widespread clinical staffing shortages, patient care teams may be forced to choose between caring for a patient and manually keying product information into one, or multiple, systems.

Failure to track product status – expiry and recall information, on-hand quantities, supply locations, utilization, etc. – can lead to overordering, underordering, stock-outs, and safety events. Supply chain teams that lack visibility into inventory status cannot effectively manage what they cannot see, or manage other risks, such as inventory shrinkage.

RFID technology can help bridge gaps in the clinical supply chain across perioperative and procedural environments by providing unprecedented levels of real-time visibility into the full lifecycle of their supplies – from procurement through receipt, to utilization. RFID technology automates supply chain management across every stage of the clinical supply chain. Because RFID-enabled cycle counts require little-to-no manual intervention by users, inventory information is substantially more accurate and readily available. Clinicians, freed from manual inventory documentation activities, can spend more time on providing direct patient care.

An RFID solution that is fully integrated with a hospital’s MMIS and/or ERP provides real-time information regarding supply status to both clinical and supply chain teams, providing actionable information to help make collaborative, data-driven inventory decisions that can improve clinical, operational and financial performance.

For information on QSight RFID click here.

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