RFID Blood bag tracking in blood bank in Mississippi | Crepak
RFID Blood bag tracking in blood bank in Mississippi

RFID Blood bag tracking in blood bank in Mississippi

06 May 2018

Aug 07, 2006—For Mississippi Blood Services (MBS), few tasks pose as great a challenge as tracking inventory. The not-for-profit organization collects in excess of 60,000 units of blood annually from more than 35,000 donors. At any given moment, MBS can have upwards of 2,500 units of blood products on hand, and must be ready to ship specific blood types and products—including plasma, platelets and red cells—to hospitals around the state. Blood products typically last from 5 to 42 days; frozen plasma can last more than a year. 

Sometimes some blood products expire while certain locations experience shortages. "Accuracy in blood transfusion is a life-and-death issue," says Gulam Patel, manager of information services for the Jackson-based organization. "The slightest error can have huge consequences." 

 


Managing the inventory of blood products—MBS supplies blood to 50 hospitals and medical facilities throughout Mississippi—is a complex logistical process. For years, MBS has used bar codes and scanners to help automate processes and improve record keeping. Yet, in an era of growing cost pressures and increased demand for blood, the 25-year-old organization has recognized that radio frequency identification can help it save dollars and lives. 

To that end, MBS recently completed an RFID pilot that tracked 1,000 bags of blood within a storage unit. Its plan over the next few years is to integrate the RFID system with its existing inventory management software, deploying the technology across the entire organization. 

The RFID system will provide real-time information about the location of blood, allow the organization to anticipate shortages and distribution problems better and help improve the efficiency of the overall inventory process. "We spend a lot of time conducting monthly and quarterly inventories," Patel says. "RFID will take things to the next level, and will provide benefits for everyone, including the hospitals obtaining blood and the patients receiving transfusions. Anything we can do to move the blood faster and more accurately is a step forward." 

Patel first conceived the idea of migrating to RFID came about three years ago, while reading a newspaper article about the technology. Although there was no proven RFIDsystem to handle bags of blood, Patel says, it was clear RFID could improve the processes MBS uses to monitor trays of blood (each of which holds up to 30 bags) and find a specific package.

To locate plasma for a patient, for example, an employee must stand in a 15-by-15-foot or 12-by-12-foot storage freezer at minus-30 degrees Celsius (minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit) and sort through bags. Scanning the bar codes manually with a laser pen can take a couple of minutes. The process is just as slow and unpleasant for handling shipments of platelets or red blood cells, which are stored at a slightly higher temperature. 

Patel believed RFID could simplify the validation process by streamlining a series of checks and inspections needed to ensure the company was shipping blood to the right hospital or clinic. He also envisioned that the technology would simplify the management of blood within the coolers. 

 

MBS has recently completed an RFID pilot tracking 1,000 bags of blood within a storage unit.


"The health-care industry, including hospitals, is under greater scrutiny to operate free of accidents and mistakes," says David Allen, president of MBS. "The use of RFID ensures that the right patient gets the right blood product." 

In 2004, after deciding to forge ahead with the initiative, Patel contacted several companies and inquired about solutions, but came up empty-handed. "We had trouble finding a company with the right expertise and technology," says Patel. The low storage temperature for blood, combined with its high moisture content, created challenges for developing RFID-friendly packing materials. Most systems could not overcome labeling challenges and other environmental issues, or interference problems from other electronic devices. 

Eventually, Patel discovered AARFID, a firm located in Eden, N.Y., specializing in assembling company-specific RFID solutions and systems integration. After several weeks of discussions, research and brainstorming with Chad Carpenter, president of AARFID, Patel and Carpenter agreed on a pilot using 1,000 units of blood products. The goal was to locate specific blood products from trays stored inside the cooler using RFIDinterrogators and passive tags attached to the blood bags. 

The pair faced several challenges in this pursuit. First, MBS had to find a way to eliminate interference caused by the metal trays holding the blood bags, which rendered reading the passive tags nearly impossible. Other electronic devices, including telephones, also caused interference problems. Eventually, after testing a variety of passive tags—ranging from 13.56 MHz 915 MHz—it became clear that the high water content of the blood, combined with the metal trays, would cause additional problems. As a result, MBS swapped the metal trays for plastic ones, moved phone locations and replaced any packing materials using metal with plastic. "In some cases," says Carpenter, "we devised low-tech solutions to high-tech problems."

Another roadblock was finding a label converter that could develop smart labels for the blood bags. The RFID tags had to withstand extreme temperatures, and the resins and adhesives used to attach the smart labels to the blood bags had to meet U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements—all while ensuring a 100-percent read rateMPI Label Systems, based in Sebring, Ohio, devised a label utilizing an RFID inlay, human-readable text and bar-code data. 

The biggest challenge was dealing with the chemical composition of the blood, which has a retuning effect on the RFID transponder. After several weeks of experimentation, as well as input from researchers at Texas Instruments (TI), the pair recognized that the transponder would have to initiate at a frequency of 14.4 MHz, then drop to 13.56 MHz within a fraction of a second—otherwise, the passive TI tags wouldn't connect to the Feig Electronics interrogators at the required 20- to 21-inch range. 

 

The RFID system will provide real-time information about the location of blood, allowing the organization to anticipate shortages and distribution problems better, and to help improve the efficiency of the overall inventory process.

When employees pull RFID labels off the blood bags, that could damage the transponders. So MBS has had to train workers to leave the labels in place—even if they aren't in the precise position (with RFID, the exact label position is less important). The company is also working on developing a resin that sets up after about 5 seconds rather than instantly. 

Although the RFID system works effectively and accurately, MBS faces a few additional obstacles before it can be fully implemented. All blood banks are regulated by the FDA as both a drug and biological service provider. Consequently, MBS must ensure that all of its manufacturing processes and systems meet FDA guidelines. 

 

MBS executives believe RFID will play an important role in managing blood supplies in the years ahead.


Moreover, the blood bank needs the per-unit label price to drop from about 92 cents each, as it is currently, to 25 cents apiece before it will see the initiative as cost-effective (MBS believes it can get the price down to 30 cents each by buying in large volumes). In addition, it must further integrate systems with its blood bank inventory software and achieve integration with hospitals and other medical facilities across Mississippi. At present, MBS is working with other blood centers and the International Society for Blood Transfusion (ISBT) to finalize a group of standards and make RFID tags compatible across the health-care industry. 

Nevertheless, the initiative is on track—and Patel believes it will go live within the next few years. Although MBS has not been able to develop specific return-on-investment data, Patel and David Allen, president of MBS, are sold on RFID. "As a not-for-profit organization, we have to be very cognizant of our expenses," says Allen. "We saw this 'emerging' technology and knew we should explore its effectiveness in improving patient safety...but it wasn't until I heard that Wal-Mart was going to require all of its vendors to begin using RFID that I knew it could be made cost-effective." 

MBS executives believe RFID will play an important role in managing blood supplies in the years ahead. Therefore, they're working with representatives of several leading blood centers, research institutes and medical equipment manufacturers to develop global standards for managing blood supplies. That, in turn, could hasten the adoption of RFIDin the industry and boost safety and performance. "The goal is to make sure that the technology works seamlessly across the entire industry," Patel says. 

For now, the adoption of RFID is helping MBS move into the 21st century. The organization is continuing to study RFID and gain insights into how to use the system to maximum advantage. "We feel this initiative will not only give us an edge with our internal operations," says Allen, "but improve patient safety and efficiency within the hospital. RFIDrepresents the future of the industry."


MBS used a Zebra R2844-Z printer-encoder to print the labels and verify that the tags worked correctly. Application engineers from TI and AARFID worked together to develop a unique portal enabling personnel to read the trays of blood products simultaneously, says Ellen Zeidler, a spokesperson for Texas Instruments RFID Systems

After a worker applied the label for the specific blood product, an AARFID portalinterrogator located just outside the cooler read the tag once more, ensuring that the system was reading the blood bags correctly as workers transported them in and out. "The location is strategic," says Carpenter, "because it allows workers to move blood products from the cooler, through the portal and into shipping containers." 

The system, which took about 8 months to assemble, performed a data integrity check for the encoded data, consisting of the product code, FDA number, unit number, expiration date and blood type. AARFID software controlled the printer-encoder and the interrogators, managing the data that was written to each tag. It also automated the check-in and check-out of blood products from the freezers. It can perform emergency trace recall in the event that health professionals discover contaminated blood, and is equipped to handle daily and on-demand inventory of blood products, as well as order entry and order fulfillment, including packing and shipping. 

Still, assembling the right technology was only half the story. MBS also had to change the way employees handled the blood bags. "We discovered early on that an array of human factors exist," Carpenter says. For instance, workers have varying degrees of accuracy when attaching labels to the desired spot on the bag. The bar-code labels have to appear in a specific area, so some workers remove the labels and reapply them.

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