-Joe Pleshek

As RFID becomes entrenched in the retail industry, you can start see a pattern of how the technology is enabling monumental changes throughout retailing.

By improving inventory accuracy levels from a clearly unacceptable range of 65 to 67 percent to 99 percent or better, retailers are able to reduce costly out-of-stocks by keeping more products on the store shelves when customers

want them.

The improved inventory accuracy enabled by RFID technology is allowing retailers to sell to consumers like never before. The strategy of Omnichannel retailing – where a shopper buys a product online or from a mobile device and has the option of same day delivery or picking up the order at a nearby store – could not exist without the highly accurate inventory that RFID provides.

Macy’s is one retailer that is quickly deploying this strategy. A leader in the Omniretailing movement, Macy’s now has 500 stores functioning as de factor distribution centers to ship products to customers, or where customers can pick up the products they order from mobile devices.

Omnichannel is one of the hottest segments in the retail sector, and everyone wants to be first.

In a way, the same theory applies to the healthcare industry, although we haven’t come up with any flashy new terminology just yet. But healthcare providers are very excited about the options provided by RFID, both from an operational efficiency standpoint, and from a patient safety standpoint. Of course, gains in either area have a tendency to catch the eye of the CFO.

While retailers usually lose a sale when a customer comes across an out-of-stock item, the consequences of an out-of-stock in healthcare can be far greater.

There is simply no room in healthcare for out-of-stocks in an operating room, where millions could be lost – not to mention human lives – if a product is unavailable or expired when needed. A recent Capgemini study claims that nearly 80 percent of shoppers will go to another store if the product they desire isn’t available at the store they are shopping at.

Sick patients simply don’t have that option. The onus is on the healthcare industry to make sure that critical hospital care products are always readily available. RFID is making slow but steady progress in making that happen. Some day, out-of-stocks might be obsolete in retail and healthcare!

Let’s look at some other ways that RFID is changing healthcare. One thing I love about RFID is that it can eliminate so much wasted time and redundancies, be it hospital staff searching for products or assets, or even for patients and caregivers.

When Providence Health & Services, the largest healthcare provider in Washington State, opened its new clinic in Monroe in October, some patients were slightly confused. One thing closely related to hospitals – the dreaded waiting room – was missing. The new facility deployed RFID along with a Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) that allowed patients to register immediately and then be guided to an available exam room, with no waiting required.

A big plus to this solution is eliminating the need for sick people to wait amongst other sick people, where germs can easily spread. So the patient safety angle is huge. The system locates patients and staff and medical equipment with RTLS badges, using infrared and radio frequency technology.

The solution allows hospital staff to track how long a patient is in the exam room before being seen by caregivers, and alerts staff if a patient is alone for more than 10 minutes at any point during a visit. In addition, hospital staff automatically knows when rooms are ready for turnover after patient leaves the facility.

While waiting rooms might be a thing of the past at hospitals in the future, so too could be healthcare associated infections (HAIs), which are estimated to affect one out of every 20 patients. According to the CDC, nearly 100,000 people die annually from these infections, which costs the healthcare sector about $40 billion annually.

Many HAI’s can be prevented by proper hand washing hygiene, which has always been a challenging aspect for hospitals to control. New RFID-enabled hand washing monitoring systems, however, stand to dramatically improve hand hygiene compliance rates, which can be as low as 40 percent.

While not all HAI’s are attributed to this problem, just imagine if hand-washing compliance improved to 75 percent, and that HAI’s dropped to the point where they infected one out of every 25 patients as a result. The U.S. healthcare industry would stand to save billions annually, not to mention the fact that tens of thousands of lives could be saved.

No one wants to end up in a hospital, admitted for a surgical procedure or even as a visitor. But it is comforting to know that technology gains are improving efficiencies and making life better for everyone involved. Chalk it up to good old technology innovation. And with RFID, we are not even close to seeing what comes next.