RFID for Sterilization Tracking in Hospitals

March 3, 2015 - Industry News

Protecting Patients from the “Superbug” and other Hospital-Acquired Infections

By, J. Prior | JADAK

Barcodes have been a mainstay in the medical realm for several decades and will continue to be an important technology for more simple data collection applications long into the future. However, barcodes are limited and in today’s world healthcare providers require enhanced technologies to perform more complex functions. Therefore, many medical device manufacturers are turning to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) medical equipment tracking systems to help them take medical instrumentation management and patient safety to a new level.

The Numbers

Patient safety is serious business and a top priority for healthcare organizations. It’s estimated that hospital errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States, running behind heart disease and cancer. A study from a recent issue of the Journal of Patient Safety says that between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death(1).  According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 100,000 of these deaths can be attributed to hospital-acquired infections in American hospitals alone(2).

What is the “Superbug?”

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the drug-resistant “superbug” or CRE following two reported outbreaks in California and North Carolina in early 2015.  The so-called superbug is considered to be an infection that is acquired in a hospital. It is resistant to anti-biotics and claims the lives of about half of the people who contract the virus, according to the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Superbug2Although the superbug can be transmitted through very simple forms of human contact, normally the infection spreads on contaminated intravenous lines, catheters and other devices. Officials at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center report that contaminated endoscopes are to blame for their most recent occurrences of CRE.

Medical Equipment’s Role in the Spread of Microorganisms

There are many medical devices and tools that are reused to facilitate multiple patient procedures. This puts both hospitals and medical device manufactures on high alert, as the potential to spread bacteria from patient to patient is extremely high. Therefore, proper sterilization of this equipment is critical in the prevention of the superbug and other hospital-acquired infections.

There are several procedures employed by hospitals today to sterilize reusable medical tools. The most common being the use of autoclaves which kills harmful microorganisms with intense heat and pressure. Other forms of sterilization include chemical cleansing with ethylene oxide (EtO) gas, electron beam radiation, and gamma sterilization. Whatever the method, medical devices need to be tracked and RFID medical equipment tracking is becoming an increasingly popular method.

RFID for Medical Equipment Tracking

Let’s use endoscopes as an example as it is believed to be the culprit in some of the recent CRE outbreaks. Endoscopes are considered a multi-use medical tool, therefore proper sterilization is an essential process. Manufacturers of scopes and other medical devices can design their instruments to include an embedded RFID tag.  During the manufacturing process information such as original date of manufacture, serial number, and device expiration date can be written directly to the tag. This information verifies device authenticity and serves as an important anti-counterfeiting measure for both caregivers and the manufacturer. Also, RFID does not require line of sight. In other words, data capture happens as soon as the tags come within range of the reader. Therefore, it’s possible for the tags to be tracked and identified without opening packages or shipping containers throughout the supply chain.

Due to their ample supply of memory capacity, additional information can be written to the embedded RFID tag once in the clinical setting. Critical data such as time and date stamps to track frequency of use, number of sterilizations, duration of sterilizations, and device location are just a few examples. This allows clinicians to accurately track device usage per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Keeping Track of Medical Instrumentation

In most surgical applications, it is estimated that 250-300 surgical tools are used. Those numbers can double for larger surgeries. Therefore, it is logical to assume that most hospitals must keep track of thousands of medical instruments. To complicate matters, many hospitals are comprised of multiple buildings. Instrumentation trays can be shuffled from building to building depending on an OR teams needs. Being absolutely certain that surgical supplies are where they need to be and properly sterilized can be daunting for sterilization departments, to say the least.

An RFID tracking process can be useful in a number of ways. Due to its location tracking capabilities, RFID will allow an OR staff to locate the equipment in real-time, which minimizes the risk of a procedure being delayed or cancelled due to missing equipment. In some instances, medical teams will decide in the midst of a procedure that different instruments are required. In this case, OR teams can not only locate the necessary tools, but they can immediately determine which set in the system is properly sterilized and cleared for use.

“To Err is Human”

The sheer number of multi-use medical instruments in hospitals today is overwhelming and creates significant challenges for sterilization management teams. The potential for human-error is near certain without a technology based tracking solution. RFID medical equipment tracking systems are an increasingly popular technology choice and can drastically reduce the spread of “superbug” and other microorganisms from patient-to-patient.

Ask the Experts

JADAK has a long history of partnering with the world’s largest medical device manufactures to integrate best-in-class RFID solutions into their equipment. Follow the link to learn more about our full-line of RFID products and services.

  1. James, John T, PhD, “A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care” Journal of Patient Safety, September 2013 – Volume 9 – Issue 3 – p 122–128.  Accessed February  27, 2015
  2. “Healthcare-Acquired Infections (HAIs)” PatientCareLink.org, Accessed March 2, 2015


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