NFC – a pacemaker for the heart of the NHS

Anyone who has ever been in hospital will know that, pretty quickly, a reassuring nurse will come along and place a plastic bracelet around your wrist. On this bracelet will be written, quite simply, your name and your hospital number.
This bracelet, when the hospital is busy, understaffed, or you are a child or an old, confused patient, is often the one thing that stops you having the wrong operation, being given the wrong drugs or simply being lost in the corridors.

However, all this is about to change, because that bracelet will soon do so much more than just save you from some tragic error; using NFC (near field communication) it is about to become an integral part of your treatment. By encasing an NFC tag within the bracelet, it will be able to carry your entire medical record and be updated, in real time, with your treatment plan, prescriptions, medical imaging and surgical procedures.

Gone will be the days of being asked the same questions, over and over again, by a dozen different medical staff; instead they will be able to just scan your wrist with a smart phone or notepad to find out everything they need to know.

For the patient, it’s not just a matter of convenience either; near field technology can be used to monitor vital signs such as temperature, heart rate and, indeed, whether you are actually still breathing. Potentially the old image of the patient with wires going to every conceivable part of the body will be a thing of the past, replaced by contact-less smart sensors; literally NFC interacting with life.

For the health sector as a whole, but particularly the NHS, one of the largest organisations in the world, the potential for NFC and its related technologies, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and RTLS (Real Time Location System) is huge. All health authorities are under tremendous pressure to reduce costs, some by as much as 20% over the next few years, while the expectations of the population are for innovative but highly expensive drugs, more and more elective and cosmetic surgery, less waiting time and a better hospital experience. This is set against the background of an ageing population needing ever more healthcare as they survive for longer, with lifespans of 90 and a hundred years plus no longer a rarity.

Potentially though, much of the funding required for the health service is already there but being wasted by its failure to look to industry and technology to find solutions. In some ways that isn’t surprising as it does take a change of mind-set to really see where the opportunities lie to make substantial efficiency savings and tangible operational performance improvements.

Just consider for a moment the hospital as a warehouse and processing facility. This is filled with various machines, in this case imaging, operating theatres, labs, kitchens etc., and specialist operators, surgeons, medics, cooks, pharmacists etc. The raw materials, the patients, come in at one end, either as emergency or planned admissions, and go through a process of conversion, either get better, look better, get worse or die.

By looking at healthcare in what some would see as a rather brutal and inhumane way, the opportunities to apply the benefits that have been available to industry for many years become obvious. The extraordinary logistics industry, which now allows us to order something online by 9pm and have it delivered before lunchtime the following day, is only possible because NFC and RFID are able to take all of the tracking and administration burden and automate the picking, packing and despatch processes.

In a healthcare setting, NFC and RFID, can take over the transfer of patient notes, the transmission of prescription data (at the same time eliminating the many medication errors per year caused by illegible handwriting!) and the transfer of medical images. All of this saves a huge amount of clinical staff time; in a recent study at Guy’s Hospital in London it was estimated that over 30% of a junior doctor’s (a doctor in training) time was spent on administration; that time can now be reassigned to the critical tasks of diagnosis and treatment plans.

Part of the problem for the healthcare industry is that it is so insular. From a culture of being very ‘special’, not like any other organisation at all, to having a structure dominated by almost ‘god-like’ consultants, whose word may not be challenged; these attitudes create barriers to adopting a mission of continuous improvement with patient benefit and real cost efficiencies being the driving criteria.

In so many commercial settings NFC has proved itself to be an absolutely win-win technology; there is no downside other than the failure of some phone manufacturers to get fully on board with standard specifications. For the consumer and customer it has been all good news with almost unimaginable development opportunity in the future.

The same is true for healthcare. It may surprise many people but one of the biggest issues for the NHS is that of patient confidentiality. While most of us, unfortunately, are more than happy to bore the world with tales of our ailments and treatments, there are very good reasons why we should keep them to ourselves, not least of which is the continuity of our life and health insurance cover. 

For hospitals and GP practices, confidentiality is an obsession and this may be leading them to be suspicious of new technologies, especially against a background of media attention on the hacking of large ‘secure’ organisations such as Google and Sony. The reality, of course, is that NFC is an incredibly secure technology with the combination of encryption and near field data exchange limits providing data integrity way beyond hand written notes in paper files.

Some hospitals in the UK are forward thinking and have introduced NFC and RFID, not only for efficiency, but also to improve security. Several have installed the technology on children’s wards to control access, and also in the mental health sector, to allow patients a degree of freedom using NFC and RTLS to keep track of their location.

Companies like NFC Direct are doing their bit by talking to the health authorities and providing demonstrations of how NFC can be deployed at very reasonable cost, especially when measured against the huge savings and efficiencies that can be and are being achieved elsewhere. It’s up to those in charge of the NHS to grab the opportunities to use technology to improve clinical outcomes; the prize is simply there for the taking.