Blood banks to try RFID tracking

Researchers at an American university are hoping to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to better track blood supplies around the world, stopping thousands of critically needed litres going to waste.

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Researchers at an American university are hoping to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to better track blood supplies around the world, stopping thousands of critically needed litres going to waste.

The RFID lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has already completed studies about the safety and economic benefits of an RFID blood-tracking system. Now it has partnered with three national US blood centres to develop and test a prototype that will identify, track and monitor the condition of blood products.

The lab's director, Alfonso Gutierrez, says the system could lead to better handling and fewer instances of patients receiving the wrong blood.

Although bags are already bar-coded, tracking blood products has proved quite difficult because of the number of hands and locations it passes through. After being donated, it's shipped to a facility where it's tested and then different components, like platelets and plasma, are extracted and repacked. Then it's shipped to regional blood centres or hospitals where it's then sent to operating rooms, emergency rooms and intensive care units.

There are an estimated 25 million transfusions in the United States each year. A 2005 US Department of Health and Human Services study found more than 32,000 reports of transfusion-related adverse reactions from a sample of 1,322 national medical treatment centres.

RFID is technology consists of a small chip and an antenna acting as a unique identifier. Gutierrez his team had just finished tests to prove to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the low frequency radiation emitted by the RFID readers would not harm the blood.

He added that the first RFID pilot programme should begin in the United States in about a year. He hopes the programme will be officially rolled out in the US and around the world in two to three years.

"What we're creating is a layer of safety redundancy," Gutierrez said. "RFID, in coordination with the bar codes that are used today, is going to increase safety and increase efficiency. And by doing a better job of tracking the blood, we're increasing quality. When a product is not well managed, it ends up being discarded. If it outlasts its shelf life, it needs to be discarded and that happens many, many thousands of times a day."

"People don't realise but blood is a prescribed medication and has to be treated like a drug," said Gutierrez. "Every bag has an [RFID] tag. Every time it's split into red blood cells or plasma, there's a transferring of data onto the next tag, so you can track it all the way back to the donation ID. That ID travels with the blood bag all the way to the patient. The whole idea is not only tracking, but [the tag] has information about attributes about the blood, like blood type and expiration date."

The project is funded by a small grant from the National Institutes of Health and by companies in various segments of the blood industry.

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