RFID technology in healthcare

November 18, 2011

We have discussed many innovations and new technologies that enable mobile healthcare on the blog. Today, let’s take a look at one of the most promising and most controversial of them: RFID.

RFID means Radio Frequency Identification. It uses radio to transfer data between a chip or tag that contains information and a dedicated reader. In effect, this allows even very small objects to record, store and transmit data at various ranges. Depending on their function, RFID tags may not even need a power source to work: they can lie dormant and be “awakened” only when a reader is close-by and sends out a signal to interrogate them. The RFID tag can then tap into the radio energy from the transmission to power itself and broadcast back. Some of the most common examples of use of RFID are in subway cards, on pets in case they get lost or to track stocks in a store.

For healthcare, the applications of RFID are numerous and very useful for all patients, from enthusiastic self-trackers to average patients to persons suffering from chronic diseases.

Because they are so small, RFID chips can be carried everywhere without having to think about it, embedded onto simple cards and even grafted under the skin. They can be filled with any sort of data: specific information about a patient such as their allergies, whether they are wearing a pacemaker or even their whole electronic health record can be made readily available to any physician equipped with the correct reader, from family doctors to emergency rescue workers. Since they can communicate with other devices, they can also be updated regularly with the latest health readings available for a patient. In a hospital, they can also be used to keep track of where the patients are in the building.

RFID however also has its drawback and can have an adverse effect on the treatment of patients. Researchers in the Netherlands for example showed that an excessive use of RFID technology in hospitals can interfere with some equipment and produce wrong readings or generally make examinations more difficult.

The other main concern raised by RFID is privacy. The main benefits of RFID chips, their small size and their unobtrusiveness, also means that there is often no way to turn them off, or at least that it is easy to forget to do it. The consequence is that potentially very personal and sensitive information might be made available to anyone equipped with the right sort of reader and the owner of the chip may never even realize that their data has been collected by third-parties without his consent. In healthcare more specifically, being able to track patients might be of great interest to insurance companies for example.

Concerns about privacy prompted the American Medical Association to publish an ethics code in 2007 with guidelines for the correct use of RFID. However, in most countries RFID is not the object of a specific regulation and instead follows general rules about electronic records that may not be adapted to the portable and ubiquitous nature of this technology.

Nevertheless, RFID chips can offer some very significant benefits for healthcare. Using them to store very specific and critical information (like any health condition that emergency crews may need to know about), or using them for limited periods of time, for example during a hospital stay, would greatly limit the threat to privacy. Public regulation certainly also has a role to play to define precisely who should be able to access personal data and under what circumstances.

Do you think the benefits of RFID chips outweigh the dangers for privacy? What sort of information would you be willing to carry with you at all times stored on such a chip?