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Intended to improve patient safety, radio frequency identification (RFID) is used in many hospitals to track medical supplies and blood products. But in an alarming new study, Dutch researchers found that radio waves emitted by RFID devices caused electromagnetic interference with mechanical ventilators, external pacemakers, kidney dialysis machines, and other critical care equipment.


The research, which didn't involve patients connected to the equipment, was based on 123 tests conducted in an ICU. Electromagnetic interference occurred in almost 30% of the tests when a wireless device was within 1 foot of the medical equipment. About 20% of these involved potentially harmful or life-threatening malfunctions in such equipment as mechanical ventilators, syringe pumps, an intra-aortic balloon pump, and renal replacement devices.


Many hospitals use RFID to monitor inventories, prevent theft, and detect drug counterfeiting. The researchers call for updates of international standards and urge administrators to conduct on-site testing for electromagnetic interference from RFID devices used in their facilities.


Source: van der Togt R, et al., Electromagnetic interference from radio frequency identification inducing potentially hazardous incidents in critical care medical equipment, JAMA, June 25, 2008.