Technology that retailers use to make a shopping experience more efficient could also benefit your next eye appointment. Called radio-frequency identification (or RFID), the tool helps streamline operations by knowing where everything is and where everything goes. It can help a large store maintain a clearer picture of inventory counts, for example.

At the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, RFID serves another purpose: to track and reduce patient wait time and enhance time spent at the doctor's office. A partnership between Kellogg Eye and the U-M Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety (CHEPS) unlocked a whole new realm of potential applications for RFID technology. "We were trying to understand how to integrate education into the glaucoma clinic visit better," says Paula Anne Newman-Casey, M.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Michigan Medicine. "And it took on a life of its own."

RFID uses small tags or chips to transmit a signal to remote scanners. Over the last decade, the cards have gotten cheap enough to attach to everyday items from soup to leggings and they've been used in car ignitions and EZ pass booths for years. Which is why Kellogg doctors, ophthalmic technicians, medical assistants and more than 2,000 patients in the glaucoma clinic agreed to wear ID tags implanted with an RFID chip.

What resulted was a "smart clinic" with real-time localization of health care providers and the continuous capture of patient wait times. Wait time was measured as any period that a patient was alone and not getting tests or being examined or counseled by a provider.  "Good decision-making depends on good data, and RFID tags enabled us to get up-to-the-second granular data to understand how patients and providers move through the clinic truly," says Amy Cohn, Ph.D., associate director of CHEPS and a professor of industrial and operations engineering.

Efficiency improves care

Most eye care professionals know that clinic visits are already extended. And wait times are a significant indicator of whether patients are happy with their health care. A new patient visit can take two to three hours with multiple tests, such as a visual field test which detects blind spots and other defects that could be signs of eye problems. Using the RFID data, the smart clinic team at Kellogg is now able to experiment with changes in scheduling, staffing and operations within a simulated model of the clinic and determine with 80% baccuracy the impact on patient wait times.

Even better, the data may also boost the efficiency of clinic visits to include additional education and counseling opportunities. Among them: one-on-one coaching to improve patients' medication adherence and discussion about new glaucoma treatments. As a glaucoma specialist, Newman-Casey knows self-management is a significant concern. Glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness in the United States. At least half of glaucoma patients do not take the medications that are proven to prevent vision loss.