RFID could revolutionise patient safety

The government has earmarked £80m for the development of sensor networks that will allow outpatients' movements to be more easily monitored at home

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

Speaking at the RFID Futures event in London on Monday, Richard Curry, visiting industrial associate at Imperial College London, said he 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

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

If people don't carry out relatively simply, 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 Curry.

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

There are already some monitoring devices to allow home monitoring — such as fall detectors and flood detectors for bathrooms — but according to Curry 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.