Who moved my stent? RFID technology helps hospitals keep track of medical devices, and could even save lives

By Mark Baard

The UMass Memorial Medical Center is striking: Its high-rise hospital building, helipad, and sprawling medical school campus tower over Worcester’s Lake Quinsigamond. It’s a monument to Massachusetts’ role as a healthcare leader and symbolizes an industry known for its miracle-making – and its out-of-control costs.

But behind UMass Memorial’s bricks and mortar, an effort is underway to trim costs by using radio frequency identification, or RFID. It might save lives and money, by preventing medical mistakes and speeding the recall of defective products.

In UMass Memorial’s shiny, four-year-old catheterization laboratory, supply chain coordinator Raul Navarro slaps RFID tags onto boxes containing stents and balloons for use in the department’s procedure rooms.

“It’s simple piecework,” said Navarro, who is able to monitor the department’s tagged devices from a laptop computer.

RFID uses the same wireless technology that allows commuters to breeze through the Fast Lane on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Citizens Bank cards contain RFID chips that shoppers use to make “Tap N Go” purchases. And thanks to the early efforts of an RFID consortium at MIT cofounded by Gillette Co. and Procter & Gamble Co., and a slew of new technology firms based in Massachusetts, the tags are streamlining retail, military – and now – medical supply chains.

For instance, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is working with Andover’s Radianse Inc. to track the precise locations of thousands of devices, using “active” RFID tags, which are programmable and can be tracked to within a few feet, anywhere in the hospital.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston is doing similar work with combination WiFi-and-RFID tags from PanGo, based in Framingham. (PanGo merged last year with InnerWireless Inc., of Richardson, Texas.)

And Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is working with the RFID company Tagsys, which has offices in Cambridge, to match patients with the right blood bags using RFID tags and a reader the hospital helped to build.

The UMass Memorial catheterization lab, where doctors perform 7,000 procedures every year, has shelves with built-in RFID readers. The readers continually roll, wirelessly scanning tags and recording the presence of every stent and balloon in stock.

The tags, readers, and the Web-based technology that keeps track of them all come from WaveMark Inc., a Littleton company that specializes in healthcare RFID.

WaveMark, founded in 2003, is actually a relative old-timer in the RFID/healthcare business. Chief executive John Wass said he sees tremendous opportunity for companies aiming to improve healthcare supply chains through RFID.

In terms of supply chain efficiency, said Wass, “healthcare is where retail was 20 to 25 years ago.”

The UMass Memorial lab’s stents and balloons can cost up to $3,000 each. And each of its pacemakers, which also bear RFID tags on their packaging, are worth up to $30,000.

Running out of any of the devices, which come from at least a half-dozen vendors and in several sizes (to suit patients’ needs and physicians’ individual preferences), is unacceptable, Navarro said.

An “out-of-stock” incident in the cosmetics aisle at Wal-Mart won’t kill anybody. But a missing medical device for an emergency (or scheduled) procedure is another matter.

Further complicating Navarro’s job is the fact that many of the stents doctors use are drug-coated and have limited shelf lives.

He relied on his own eyes to monitor the lab’s shelves to ensure the devices were in stock, and fresh. The risk of human error weighed heavily on him.

“I had to go from one item to the next, checking expiration dates,” Navarro said. “Someone can easily confuse a 3 for an 8, for example.”

The items came in boxes with bar codes. Navarro and some of the lab’s nurses tracked them with hand-held readers. The devices, however, “are only as good as the person holding the reader,” he said.

Nor did Navarro know whether other employees were dutifully scanning products in and out, or what became of devices used by other departments. “I know for a fact we were losing thousands” of dollars, he said.

Kim Carter, a top administrator at the lab, said the WaveMark system has helped her bring consigned and paid stock (cash tied up in inventory) down to $100,000, from about $400,000.

“I can put my finger on our inventory figures at any moment, like this,” Carter said, with a snap of her fingers.

WaveMark’s software also tracks the rates of use for each item and recommends changes in stock levels. Having that data helps in negotiations with vendors, Carter said.

The savings for some other types of RFID systems, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to maintain, can be harder to assess. But at Mass. General, the life-saving potential for one RFID pilot project is obvious.

In a few weeks, Sunny Dzik, co-director of the hospital’s blood transfusion service, will roll out a cart Dzik helped design. It reads the RFID tags on a patient’s wrist band and blood bag, to ensure they are a match.

In July, WaveMark is also bringing a real-time recall alert system to UMass Memorial that will reach every PC in the catheterization storage room, and those in seven procedure rooms.

Carter would also like to track the lab’s less expensive items, such as $50 catheters, but RFID tags, at 50 cents each, remain too expensive, she said. “It’s just not cost- effective at this point,” said Carter.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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