This guest post is provided by Joe Pleshek, the CEO of Terso Solutions. Joe examines how RFID technology might have prevented the anthrax scare that rocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early this summer. The blog illustrates how RFID has endless possibilities to enhance safety and productivity in the healthcare and medical research sector.
When news broke early this summer about the anthrax scare at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I couldn’t help but think of how RFID technology could have possibly played a role in preventing the entire incident.
According to published reports, several dozen CDC researchers were likely exposed to anthrax when researchers at a high security CDC lab transferred samples to three other labs not equipped to handle live anthrax.
Researchers at those labs, operating under the assumption that the samples were not “live” and posed no health threat, then handled the specimens without the proper safety equipment.
With that background in place, you can start to see how RFID could have played a major role here. If the CDC applied RFID tags to all of the samples, and deployed reader portals at each exit door, the solution likely would have flagged the anthrax samples as being a threat before they left the lab.
In addition, researchers at the facilities that received the anthrax specimens could have scanned the incoming delivery, and been alerted to the contents, as well as who shipped them and when.
The Centers for Disease Control’s labs work with some of the world’s most deadly pathogens. So it stands to reason that the agency should be deploying the most advanced technology available to not only enhance safety for employees, but to prevent potentially deadly toxins from getting into the hands of terrorists and others who could cause significant harm.
I am not privy to the technology being used behind the walls of the CDC labs. It very well could be that the agency is already piloting or using RFID technology to track some of the dangerous materials found in its vast research labs.
However, in the anthrax case, there were clearly stopgaps that were not in place.
By deploying RFID-enabled storage compartments, the CDC would be able to closely monitor when samples are checked in and out of the storage area, and which researchers were responsible for them. The CDC could also set up a system to trigger an alarm if a certain sample traveled beyond a pre-determined zone. In this case, provided that they were tagged correctly, the anthrax samples would have triggered an alert and never made it out of the lab.
Aside from monitoring the movement of vital tissue samples, RFID-enabled refrigerators and freezers also protect the integrity of the samples, many of which are critical to conducting medical research.
Many examples exist of how RFID could have prevented a disaster, as well as how the technology actually did prevent a disaster.
Two years ago a freezer malfunction at a Massachusetts research hospital severely damaged one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. At the time of the accident, researchers indicated that the incident could set back autism research by years. If the brain samples in question were housed in an RFID-enabled freezer, ample notice would have been provided to prevent the samples from spoiling.
On the flip side of the coin, a major hospital saw the true value of RFID after installing RFID storage cabinets at its facility. Within hours of the deployment, the system triggered an email alert when a refrigerated unit malfunctioned. Hospital personnel were able to quickly move some rare cancer drugs, valued at more than $500,000, to another unit.
Aside from preventing the spoilage of a rare and highly expensive drug, the hospital has deployed approximately 600 temperature sensitive tags and is saving more than 12,000 labor hours previously required to conduct manual inspections.
As the CDC works at a feverish pace to minimize the Ebola outbreak, it would be re-assuring to know that any samples being tested there are safely tagged with RFID to prevent any errors as material is passed from one research to another.
Aside from the safety angle, the CDC stands to save money from the operational efficiencies it could gain by deploying RFID. And, most importantly, researchers would have more time to spend on research, as opposed to paperwork required from manually tracking specimens and medical assets.
According to the CDC website, the agency’s mission is to work 24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S. CDC says it exists to increase the health security of our nation. As the nation’s health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats.
That may be true, but in the anthrax case, our nation’s health and well-being was put in jeopardy because of a failure of adequate standards and safety checks. CDC could meet its stated mission much more effectively and gain the confidence of a wary U.S. public by broadly adopting RFID at all of its labs and facilities.