Tracking Peace of Mind

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RFID systems help monitor newborns' whereabouts.

It's not enough that Shawnee Mission Medical Center's neonatal staff footprints all infants, fingerprints and bands their parents, and requires moms and spouses to wear bands while within hospital walls.

To prevent baby abductions, the 64-bed neonatal intensive care and postpartum units of this 445-bed Adventist Health System hospital in suburban Kansas City, KS, also rely on radio frequency identification technology, or RFID, which sounds a car alarmlike noise whenever babies are carried across certain thresholds or get too close to any of the 11 exits equipped with the technology.

So far, the security system has proved worthy of its original $50,000 to $70,000 price tag, plus about $10,000 a year to purchase 100 new bracelets when the old ones wear out and additional expenses for upgrades, said Debra Ohnoutka, Shawnee's administrative director for women's and children's services.

"There's never been a baby abducted," she said. "The financial return on investment is that we know we have a safe unit."

The technology, called Safe Place Infant Security Solution by RF Technologies of Brookfield, WI, includes a ¾-inch by ¾-inch transmitter on a stretchable white band that snaps into place around the infant's ankle. When activated, the band sends a signal every 15 seconds to transmitters in the ceiling.

Every time a new baby is logged into the system, the signal is registered in the computer.

"If anybody approaches the door [with a braceleted baby], the door locks down, and if someone tries to go through the door anyway, the door sends out an alarm," Ohnoutka said. "Everyone in any of the four wings can hear it go off. And the computer will tell you what door."

False alarms occur about once or twice a day, usually caused by staff error, such as a nurse who forgot to deactivate the signal when the baby was discharged.

"True false alarms happen about once or twice a week, for example, if dad gets too close to the door and someone is trying to come through the door at the same time," Ohnoutka said.

A software upgrade in 2006 reduced false alarms, she said.

Another problem is the occasional $100 bracelet that gets tossed into the laundry, she said.

Child abductions from hospitals are rare, but they do occur. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 126 children and infants have been illegally taken from healthcare facilities since 1983.

Hospitals are required to have systems in place to prevent abductions, but what is appropriate for each hospital depends on each hospital's demographics and size, said the Center's John Rabun, executive vice president and COO.

Many hospitals, especially smaller ones, will never be able to justify the cost, he said. He added that hospitals should not rely on such systems for absolute safety. Indeed, since 2000, 14 babies have been abducted from hospitals with RFID systems in place. While that may seem discouraging, Rabun notes, "How many more would have been abducted if the systems weren't in place?"

Any secure system must rely on a staff that stays diligent and aware of any person or event that doesn't look right. "There's not a system—and never will be a system—that does not rely on good staff," he said.

Cheryl Clark

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