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RFID safe for medical monitoring?

Dutch scientists find that the tracking-and-tracing chips can interfere with hospital equipment, thus putting patients in danger.

Radio frequency identification technology can interfere with medical equipment, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study by six Dutch scientists has found that electromagnetic interference, or EMI, generated by the tracking-and-tracing chips has the potential to cause disruption to medical devices, which could be a potential hazard to patients.

RFID-tagged wristbands are currently used in some hospitals to ensure that correct procedures are carried out on patients. But the future of health care is likely to involve far more RFID-style tech, according to a recent report by the U.K. Office of Communications, or Ofcom, which included a prediction that in-body and on-body wireless networks could become the norm over the next decade for monitoring patients.

The Dutch scientists looked at both active (info-transmitting) and passive (requiring a reader device) RFID systems, and they found that 34 adverse medical "incidents" were triggered out of 123 EMI tests--of which 22 were classed as hazardous, two as significant, and 10 as light, according to a critical-care scale. The average distance between the RFID reader and the medical device in all the EMI incidents was 30 centimeters (about a foot).

Passive RFID systems caused more incidents than active signals: 26 incidents in 41 EMI tests (63 percent), compared to eight incidents in 41 EMI tests (20 percent).

A report abstract states: "In a controlled nonclinical setting, RFID induced potentially hazardous incidents in medical devices. Implementation of RFID in the critical-care environment should require on-site EMI tests and updates of international standards."

The tests took place in May 2006 at the Academic Medical Center in the University of Amsterdam, using an active 125KHz RFID system and passive 868MHz in the proximity of 41 medical devices in 17 categories with 22 different manufacturers. Three tests were carried out on each piece of medical equipment.

Natasha Lomas of Silicon.com reported from London.