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RFID could revolutionize patient safety

More than $140 million earmarked in U.K. for development of sensor networks to help monitor outpatients' movements at home.

RFID technology could dramatically improve the safety of outpatients by providing the National Health Service with the right information to intervene before an incident, according to health service specialists.

Speaking at the RFID Futures event in London on Monday, Chris Ranger, assistant general director of the National Patient Safety Agency, said that his agency was calling on the technology industry to provide the infrastructure to allow the elderly or infirm to stay at home, when otherwise they might have no option but to go into residential care.

"We are faced with heartbreaking decisions of sending people into residential care because they cannot be safe at home," he said. "We want to be in a mode where we are predicting. It's a bit like weather monitoring. By building up this pattern you can say this is a precursor of something bad happening."

Ranger said that by using RFID technology to tag outpatients and key devices in their homes, the NHS could enhance what he describes as "lifestyle monitoring." By seeing exactly how people interact with certain devices, health specialists could more easily determine if someone is coping on their own.

If people don't carry out relatively simple, everyday tasks--such as making tea--it can be a sign that they aren't as functional as they need to be to remain at home on their own. "If people don't make tea it's a sign they are not coping, but how do you monitor that? The key is the collection and collation of all this information. What we really want to do is build up a picture of how people really cope. Then we may be able to intervene before something happens," said Ranger.

The government is very interested in the potential of home monitoring to take some of the burden off an already strained health service. Around $141.6 million (80 million pounds) has been made available over the next two years to stimulate the development of infrastructure to allow more patients to be monitored and cared for at home.

There are already some home-based monitoring devices--such as fall detectors and flood detectors for bathrooms--but, Ranger says, the devices are bulky, inelegant and expensive to implement.

"All this stuff is radio-based at the moment, which is great. It used to be hardwired. But it's all still very chunky stuff. It's not very nice. So we really need a bit of a breakthrough to help us," he said.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.