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Smart Tools: RFID Tracking for Surgical Instruments

Digital enhancements to handheld and robotic surgical tools enable tracking and other capabilities in the operating room

Surgeons can use up to 250 different tools during a surgical procedure to perform tasks like cutting, grasping, cauterizing, suturing, suctioning, and reducing bleeding. Each tool must be manually counted by hospital staff both before and after surgery to ensure that none of them have gone missing, which is a tedious and time-consuming process. This accounting process is slow, prone to error, and has been known to result in metal tools, sponges, towels, safety pins, and other objects being accidentally left inside patients’ bodies. Technologies to track surgical sponges using radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips exist, but such a system has proven more challenging to develop for reusable metal tools, which undergo a harsh sterilization process between procedures. Moreover, surgeons demand that any technology added to their tools not change the form factor, as this could interfere with surgeons’ ability to use them during procedures.

Smart Tools: RFID Tracking for Surgical Instruments
An RFID chip and antenna can be embedded into metal surgical tools during the manufacturing process and sealed with a biocompatible sealant that can survive sterilization, allowing tools to be tracked during and after surgery. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The Wyss Institute, in collaboration with clinicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has developed a method to embed RFID chips into metal surgical tools. They use a vapor deposition process to deposit a dielectric material directly onto the tool’s metal surface, pattern a conductive antenna on top of the dielectric using sputter techniques, attach an RFID chip to the antenna, and finally add a biocompatible sealant using the same process used for the dielectric. This technique allows the tools to be wirelessly tracked and counted by an antenna in the operating room, and it is able to withstand repeated sterilizations.

The complete RFID tracking system would include a detecting antenna and visual display in an operating room that displays all the surgeon’s tools when they are brought into the room as well as their approximate distance from the antenna. When the tools are taken out of the room after surgery is completed, medical professionals would be able to confirm tool placement, greatly improving hospital logistics.

This technology could be extrapolated to any area within a hospital that requires instrument traceability or material inventory

Rut Peña
Smart Tools: RFID Tracking for Surgical Instruments
A prototype Smart Tool with an RFID chip and antenna attached to it, allowing for automated surgical tool tracking and counting. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

This technology may have further applications in medical devices including pacemakers, plates, and cardiac stents so that these objects can easily be identified in patients before they undergo additional surgeries or procedures (e.g., a patient with a metal stent should not be given an MRI scan because that type of scan uses magnets).

This technology is available for licensing.


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