RFID technology to help track donated blood

Published 29 February 2008

Donated blood passes through many hands between donation and patient; to date, there is no good way to track donated blood “vein-to-vein,” with the result being many blood transfusion-related problems; RFID technology will help

Tracking the global blood supply — “from vein-to-vein,” as they say in the industry; from donor to warehouse to hospital to patient — is not easy. Tracking problems are part of the reason that thousands of bags of critically needed blood are thrown out every day. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are hoping to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to create a better way to track blood supplies around the world. That, according to Alfonso Gutierrez, RFID lab director at the university, could lead to better handling and fewer instances of patients receiving the wrong blood. Computerworld’s Sharon Gaudin writes that the UW-Madison RFID Lab, which is based in the College of Engineering, has partnered with three national blood centers to develop prototypes for using RFID to manage the entire supply chain in blood transfusion medicine. Gutierrez said the team already has completed studies about the safety and economic benefits and now is testing a prototype RFID system to identify, track and monitor the condition of blood products.

Gutierrez said that the research team just finished testing the technology to prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the radiation emitted by the RFID readers would not harm the blood. “Radio frequency is, in itself, radiation,” he explained. “It’s basically waves. Any waves, in principle, is radiation. We’re used to thinking of high-frequency radiation like x-rays or microwaves. The frequency we are using is much lower. No matter how low, the FDA requires proof of its safety.” The project is funded by a small grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and by companies in various segments of the blood industry, such as blood bag manufacturers.

Better tracking technology could not come soon enough. A 2005 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study of 1,322 national medical treatment centers found that more than 32,000 reports of transfusion-related adverse reactions in 2004. There are an estimated twenty-five million transfusions performed in the United States each year. “What we’re creating is a layer of safety redundancy,” Gutierrez told Computerworld. “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.” Gutierrez noted that the first RFID pilot program should begin in the United States in about a year. He hopes the program will be officially rolled out in the U.S. and around the world in two to three years.

One challenge in tracking the donated blood is the number of hands and locations it passes through. First the blood is donated and then it is shipped to a facility where it is tested and then different components, like platelets and plasma, are extracted and repacked. Then it is shipped to regional blood centers or hospitals where it is then sent to operating rooms, emergency rooms and intensive care units. “People don’t realize 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.”