I recently read an article which compared two technologies within the healthcare space – barcodes and RFID. The article explores the benefits of tracking assets or inventory in hospitals and compared these two technologies side-by-side in certain healthcare industry applications. After I finished reading, I realized that most of the article was centered around specific use cases for deciding whether to use barcode or RFID technology such as asset tracking, patient tracking, visitor tracking, and broader applications. This is not because the experts are not aware of other use cases, but I think so many hear RFID and they associate it with patient tracking and security using Real Time Location Services (RTLS), versus looking at all of the potential uses available with RFID. There is so much more where RFID can be enabled to simplify processes in hospitals or their supply chains.
One of the points that was stressed in this article, was that hospitals need to track where items, or people for that matter, are located. It went on to say that both technologies have the capability to accomplish this. However, barcodes require that each label be scanned individually due to needing a line of sight to the bar code label, and the time needed to scan a complete inventory location could take hours. I started to think, “RFID can perform this task in seconds with the same, if not better, accuracy”.
With the amount of human error associated with using bar code readers, additional reconciliation of inventory means more time and manpower is needed. Not just time involved with the sheer number of items that are in inventory but, in many cases, manual hours spent identifying expired or recalled product stored at hospitals because there is no real-time visibility of this inventory. These just add to the complexities and limitations of a manual process like barcode technology.
With the time required to perform manual inventory reconciliation, hospital supply chains and inventory management systems only get a glimpse of their inventory and only know what has been used the next time a reconciliation is performed. The beauty of an RFID technology system is that you can see, within seconds, hundreds or even thousands of inventory items that hospitals have. One huge advantage of using RFID is that you know now, not a week or month later.
Although the article did a great job of focusing on people and purchased inventory, it did not talk about the issue of consignment inventory tracking, which I believe is an important element when comparing the two technologies. Items such as human tissue, expensive medical implants, or pharmaceuticals are very regulated and they need to track not only the inventory, but the temperature, the expiration date, and even the chain of custody for these items. Using a barcode technology for these types of products would be a huge labor-intensive process and not feasible if information is needed immediately.
There are times when having the best of both worlds is the best solution. Sometimes it makes sense to have RFID and other times the situation calls for a barcode approach. For example, RFID would be best for situations when you simply want to grab and go during a procedure and you need to know immediately what inventory you have on hand. Connecting that product to the patient’s record, might be better suited for barcode technology. RFID tags exist that incorporate both technologies, thus allowing for a seamless integration of RFID in a world made up of millions of barcodes, making these two “rival” technologies come together as one to help hospital staff perform their jobs more efficiently and accurately.
To quote Donna Hafemeister, RN Implant Coordinator, Surgery at Froedert Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “… RFID technology has definitely decreased full time hours and staff involvement needed to manually manage inventory. There used to be several employees tasked with various pieces of the audit logs, now I can handle everything myself because of the efficiencies of the application.”
Barcode technology has been around a long time, but like other technologies, there’s always the latest and greatest that are available to not only replace them but improve accuracies. In this instance, RFID helps hospitals, laboratories, medical device manufacturers, and inventory management software developers save critical hours simplifying workflows, and tracking inventory more accurately and faster than ever.
RFID technology is not just about scanning bulk items. It is a growing technology and with RFID tag prices and technology dropping yearly, the benefits of using barcodes is starting to diminish. It is not just the barcode reader, but the complete system. In fact, any inventory management system that uses barcodes does not have to be scrapped. In almost every case, an RFID technology can use the exact same software solution with little cost to modify.
In my opinion, there’s no way to determine if RFID or barcode is better for your circumstance without evaluating all the potential uses or benefits of each, or even evaluating a process down to each small step within it. I highly recommend that if you have questions on which technology is better for your organization, do your homework, evaluate every advantage to each, and decide if you need to know now.