Healthcare Informatics has a good piece on RFID, although I would take issue with one of their key premises – namely that RFID prospects in health care mirror those of the larger picture of the technology. As a whole, the RFID industry has seen the vast majority of adoption revolve around passive RFID used to track the movement of parts and finished products through a rather constrained logistical flow. In contrast, RFID adoption in health care has been driven mainly by active RFID to track people, and coordinating the logistics of delivering the product – health care. Assembly line metaphors aside, health care is a service, whereas RFID adoption outside of health care is about manufacturing and distribution. What product distribution logistics there are in health care are usually handled as an added service by suppliers like Baxter, McKesson, Cardinal and their competitors.

The article is right on in noting the general lack of mastery of RFID technology and its application in health care.

In fact, several of the industry’s most knowledgeable users and
providers say that, by and large, executives responsible for making the
decision on how or whether to deploy RFID are not even cognizant of the
most basic characteristics of the technology’s main branches — active
and passive RFID tags. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that an ever-increasing amount of
information gathered by early adopters is providing compelling evidence that RFID technology — if preceded by
careful due diligence and a clear understanding of the underlying problems a deployment is meant to solve — can
deliver on those promises of profound disruption.

These days, RFID buyers are reaching breakeven within 12 to 18 months, but the key is “careful due diligence and a clear understanding of the underlying problems.” I might add, that a thorough vendor selection process is also needed. There is no RFID silver bullet; several active RFID technologies exist in the market because they are best suited for certain applications. Matching the application with the optimal technology is key to achieving that 12 to 18 pay back. According to Radianse founder and CTO, Mike Dempsey, “You can't improve what you can't measure.”

“It shouldn’t be a technology-driven decision, it should
be a business problem-driven decision,” Dempsey says.
“Tracking Band-Aids points one way, tracking people
and staff points to another, and they need to understand
the implications — that is, the systems that track people
and staff can also track equipment. The systems that track
Band-Aids can’t. Is that important?”

The story goes on to raise privacy issues, a bone of contention in the broad deployment of passive RFID tags in distribution chains. The privacy issue regarding patient tracking in health care is a red herring. I'm not aware of a single instance of patient tracking raising privacy objections. True, there have been occasional “big brother” concerns about tracking staff but after initial implementation those concerns have faded away.

One point not raised in the article is the fact that RFID is an enabling technology that depends on a software application to deliver full value. Just knowing where people and things are in the operating room is of little value if there is not a workflow context with alerts and automated notification to smooth the flow of surgical cases.