Cell phones here, cell phones there, cell phones everywhere — and increasingly in medical care and safety.

As one more of these potential uses, consider a tiny skin patch that that looks like an ordinary bandage, the information on it “scanned” by cell phone.

Under development by Gentag (Washington), this patch/phone sensor system could be a big step in improving the safety of medication delivery in hospitals, according to the company.

The Institute of Medicine reports 1.5 million Americans are injured by drug errors every year in hospitals, nursing homes and doctor’s offices, so a technology to eliminate those ongoing mistakes is obviously needed.

John Peeters, PhD, founder and president/CEO of Gentag, told Medical Device Daily that his company is collaborating with Frank Sammeroff (Glasgow, Scotland), a manufacturer of surgical dressings and other healthcare products, to make the radio frequency identification (RFID) skin patches, which will work with cell phone technology. He sees potential roll-out of the devices in four months.

The system consists of a thin, disposable device, about 1.5 inches square, which is affixed to a flesh-colored rectangular patch that can be applied anywhere on the body.

Here’s how it works:

The patch is applied to the patient upon admission, and a digital photo of the patient is taken. The photo is attached to other key information and is then loaded on to the hospital’s records system. Peeters said that the photo is the key element in preventing medication and any other treatment errors.

With a visit by a nurse or doctor, the patient picture and medical history become immediately available simply by scanning the patch with a specially-enabled cell phone or similar wireless device such as a PDA.

The cell phone, with special hardware and software installed, must do the scanning within a range of several inches to avoid picking up an incorrect signal from other patients in the vicinity.

A nurse or doctor then scans RFID-labeled drugs prior to administration.

“Because each nurse or doctor has his own phone or reader device, the system records who visited what patient when, and which drugs were administered,” Peeters said. “If an attempt is made to administer a drug that cannot or should not be given to a patient, the doctor or nurse is immediately warned before that happens.”

Could this be the end of old-fashioned plastic ID bracelets patients wear for their hospital stays?

Not immediately and not everywhere, because this initial system will work only in the small percentage of facilities which already have electronic health records systems in place. And since less than 10% of U.S. hospitals have implemented full EHR systems, the technology is likely to have limited uptake as of now.

And as noted, the patches also have to be used in conjunction with RFID-labeled drugs. RFID systems are composed of readers and tags which are applied to items that need to be tracked. The tags contain small integrated circuits with unique identification codes and programmable memory that can be used to store information.

A number of studies have examined the potential interference of digital inventory control systems like RFID.

Earlier this year Medical Device Daily reported on a European study which examined the use of RFID in a variety of settings. The study offered mixed results on the potential of interference with other devices at hospitals, particularly near operating rooms. (Medical Device Daily, May 29, 2007.)

Peeters told MDD that early tests have shown that the Gentag patches can be used for one week and are water resistant.

“So, most normal hospital stays will be covered without a need for replacement of the patch,” he said.

“We can use off-the-shelf technology to put in the phone,” he added, and “In the future this technology will migrate into all cell phones. It won’t be expensive. The patch will cost less than current RFID wristbands.”

Cell phone hardware, software and the patch will cost about $100, Peeters said.

He said that Gentag and its manufacturing partner Frank Sammeroff have initiated pilot studies at various locations, the sites not disclosed. Initial product launch is planned for the UK, then the U.S. and after that Asia.

Terms of the companies’ manufacturing deal were not disclosed.

Several companies already produce RFID wristbands or bracelets, Peeters said, while pointing out that they aren’t being used as sensors.

Gentag creates RFID sensor networks as covered in umbrella Patent 7,148,803 and in subsequent patents. “We are not aware of anyone who is producing skin patches read by cell phones,” Peeters said.

He said there are many other potential applications for the smart patches, one of the first and most likely being for home use as non-invasive thermometers.