How might RFID data be used in global diagnostics? The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of innovative healthcare professionals designing next-generation diagnostics instruments right now, but a few of the possibilities include authentication, predictive maintenance, specimen tracking, quality controls and automated data logging in different locations and cloud-based services.
Reagents used in diagnostics represent a significant source of customer value and many specialized reagents and other consumables are proprietary, designed only for use in specific automated instruments.
For quality control, it is important to ensure that unauthorized reagents are not used in an instrument for which they were not designed. RFID can be used to disable operations if unauthorized reagents are detected.
A common authentication technique is to disable the operation of a proprietary cartridge containing the reagent as soon as the contents are depleted. Many RFID products also include a ‘kill’ operation that disables a chip when tampering is detected, rendering the cartridge inoperable.
2. Predictive maintenance
Diagnostics instruments typically require preventive maintenance visits by technicians and occasionally need spare parts, firmware upgrades and software modifications. RFID can be used as an important component in a predictive maintenance program, alerting operators of the need to refill consumables or to perform other maintenance tasks necessary for optimizing system throughput.
With increasingly powerful memory and expanding feature sets, RFID transponders are now critical components in automated instruments and are increasingly used to ensure high reliability operation and minimal downtime—important considerations in the operation of a modern laboratory.
3. Quality control and automated data logging
RFID transponders include a ‘read’ capability that is valuable for quality control purposes as it is possible to write information to the IC chip at various points during the life of the item.
For specimen tracking, it is possible to record the date and time that various operations occurred, or record conditions such as weight, environmental parameters or cycle times. RFID can be used to identify when process variables are outside expected limits and to alert operators when downtime may be imminent without corrective action.
A new technology employing RFID is low cost data logging, using passive or ‘battery-assisted’ sensors to provide diagnostics laboratory technicians with a means of recording data history on the RFID chip directly, updating data at regular intervals.
This capability is valuable in life science applications where the quality of a specimen is determined, to a large degree, on the stable environmental conditions during storage and processing. To ensure a specimen has been maintained within prescribed temperature control limits is also possible through utilization of RFID memory by only recording deviations, and writing data to the chip only when the specimen has been exposed to a temperature outside of the prescribed range.
Passive RFID temperature sensing is a commercial reality today and such low cost sensors are now being applied in diagnostics applications. Over time, even more RFID sensors are likely to be developed, further expanding the benefits that can be exploited in the diagnostics laboratory. The data history may easily be obtained with a smart phone containing an App designed to display the information graphically.
4. Specimen tracking
Healthcare processes are changing in ways that result in the need for specimen tracking and document control in multiple facilities. While laboratory information systems can easily accommodate the processes managed within the lab with the powerful LIMS platform, specimen tracking becomes more complicated when processes are shared between multiple facilities.
In point-of-care diagnostics, for example, it is increasingly common to obtain specimens such as blood and urine outside of a laboratory, with specimens shipped to testing facilities where additional diagnostics procedures are performed. In these cases, it is beneficial to use RFID as a strategy for managing the incoming specimens at the accessioning phase.
A shipping door, for example, may be outfitted with RFID readers capable of determining the contents of shipped specimens without opening the packaging, extending the automation benefits to a secondary facility.
Most specimens are accompanied by documents and other items that may be tracked with RFID to ensure that each item will be tracked concurrently, reducing the reliance on manual processes that have historically been used for this purpose. In short, RFID is becoming a valuable tool for reducing errors and increasing throughput for diagnostic processing of specimens that may be transported to multiple facilities.
RFID tracking can also be useful in cases where samples remain in a single facility. In many cases technicians are responsible for specific specimens, and those specimens may end up in a single storage area.
Without the need for line of sight, technicians can cover more ground when it comes time to locate their samples. With RFID, technicians can scan one group of samples (or a whole shelf if a smart shelf is in place) with a single pass to locate samples recorded in their history—they can even do this with their smartphones.
5. Cloud-based services
The emergence of smart phone capabilities for reading information on an RFID-tagged item has created the possibility that information associated with the diagnostic procedure may also be extended to data stored in cloud-based services offerings to accompany the diagnostic instrument.
A scientist responsible for gene sequencing procedures, for example, may want to obtain data on the consumables used in the lab equipment without relying solely on the readers and user interface that is integral to the instrument itself.
Some consumables are no longer simple bottles or containers containing proprietary reagents, but the consumables may include cartridges and other specialized devices with limited life that must be periodically replaced. Information regarding such a consumable could be stored in part in the user memory on the RFID chip and in part in a cloud-based database that is accessible by a smart phone that can read the contents of the chip and reference a database designed for the benefits afforded by the cloud based architecture.
These cloud-based services will be increasingly offered for diagnostics instruments applications and the growing adoption of smart phones utilizing RFID near field communication capabilities will result in further expansion of creative support services that can be employed in the lab.
The rapid pace of innovation in healthcare diagnostics is resulting in new ways to apply technologies to increase efficiency, reduce errors, reduce cost and improve patient outcomes. Automation in the laboratory will continue to be a key driver supporting these improvements, and this automation has been supplemented by the recent availability of new RFID components, low cost sensors, smart phone user interfaces and cloud computing, resulting in a rich new environment for diagnostics laboratory process improvements and increasing customer value.