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David Zax

A View from David Zax

RFID to the Rescue (Literally)

A Japanese company thinks radio-frequency identification could save lives in emergency situations.

  • August 18, 2011

In an emergency, instant access to information can mean the difference between life and death. Why is this patient seizing? Does she have any allergies to medications? What’s her blood type? To delay in answering these questions costs precious seconds and minutes in a person’s treatment.

A Japanese company, Asahi Kasei, thinks it has a solution to this problem, according to a report in the Japanese business daily The Nikkei, spotted by TechCrunch. The key is a device, just three centimeters square and costing $25 when it hits the market next year, that uses radio-frequency identification (or RFID) to mine information from a patient’s laptop or smartphone.

In Japan, FeliCa smart card technology is ubiquitous (it first emerged there in the mid-90s); all the major mobile carriers use it, as to many major electronics companies, like Sony. For these reasons, Asahi Kasei opted for FeliCa tech in its own device. The idea is that an emergency medical worker encountering a gravely ill patient could simply tap the Asahi Kasei device against the patient’s phone or PC, instantly surfacing crucial health information: blood type, age, allergies, and the like. You could even surface links to more involved data: x-ray images, for instance.

The digitization, storage, and easy access of medical records is a sensitive space, one several major players have been interested in for years. But it’s a space that has toppled giants already (or at least caused them to stumble).

In late June, Google said that it would be retiring its service Google Health, which had allowed users to upload and analyze their health data. “[W]e’ve observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would,” the company announced on its blog. Though we opined at the time that Google was not at fault so much as America’s balkanized health system, surely skittishness and concerns over privacy and data security also factored in the public’s failure to warm to Google Health.

Japan though, is a different country; RFID is a different technology (though not altogether unhackable); and emergency medical situations are different from the day-to-day health data that was Google Health’s main focus. For these reasons, it will be interesting to see if Asahi Kasei succeeds where Google failed, and if RFID–which has been worming its way into everything from food to towels–might have a place in the hospital, as well.

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