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Is CME the Rx for RFID?
Attendee desires to make credit-claiming more convenient may now outweigh privacy concerns about tracking systems

Once upon a time, when merchants first started selling things on the Internet, they discovered a unique advantage that the ethereal web had over brick-and-mortar retail. By dropping a tiny piece of code—known as a cookie—in a visitor’s browser, an etailer could track that visitor’s every click through the site and, with the help of search engines like Google, even figure out where on the web they came from. While this data proved invaluable for marketing and merchandising web stores, some savvy consumers soon saw it as another invasion of their privacy. Laws were passed, and browsers tweaked to block cookies. Still, such handy features as one-click shopping and “remember me” for login, proved too tempting for most people to pass up, and cookies became more prevalent than ever.

For STEMM conferences, RFID tags have followed many of the same twists and turns as the web tracking devices. When Radio Frequency ID’s were first embedded in badges, more than a decade ago, the information they yielded for meeting planners was a revelation—not just about traffic patterns and popular points of interest, but even the number of visits that a particular attendee made to exhibitor booths. While the cost of installation for RFID antennas and readers was high, industry sponsors appeared more than willing to foot the bill for the “RF” if they could get the “ID” in exchange. But once word got out about the new technology, some of the “trackees” proved less than thrilled about being tracked. As one MD titled his column in a physicians’ lifestyle weekly, “RFID tags at medical conferences attack doctors’ privacy.”

A few associations recoiled from the initial backlash and dropped the tags. But recently, RFID has returned to STEMM meetings with a new convenience proposition—namely taking the hassle out of continuing education certification. Although precautions prevail about first obtaining attendees’ consent and then taking good care of their data, these measures now dovetail with rules that associations must put in place for the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in May.

Gates of “Tell”

Most event tracking systems on the market currently use an inexpensive RFID tag that’s called, “passive,” because it doesn’t have a battery and doesn’t transmit without being activated by a reader’s radio waves. The tag costs pennies to produce (its major attraction) and holds a unique ID number that can be tied back to each attendee. However, the antenna and reader that are used to activate the chips can cost thousands and require multiple installations throughout the convention facility. They are usually set up like more discreet versions of the gates we see at retail stores and are placed at entry and exit points to plenary halls and session rooms. “In the beginning, the key analytic that associations were trying to understand was which speakers were most engaging for attendees,” says David Carta, CEO of Telaeris, a leading provider of RFID equipment and services. “Speakers that are taking up space—but not pulling in people—that’s like a loss on your investment of time if not money. It’s not enough to know if speakers can pull attendees in,” he explains. “They also want to know if they can keep them there for the duration of the session.”

Floor mat sensors, the industry’s first tracking tool could not accurately determine the duration metric—what the industry calls “dwell time”—and could not tie any metric to individual profile data, which could yield the data points of most interest to exhibitors.

Reducing Stress by Requiring Less

The American College of Cardiology was an “early adopter” of RFID, says Thomas Walker, ACC’s Senior Director of Information Technology and Business Services, “and we initially used it to measure the efficiency of our exhibit halls. The exhibitors didn’t just want to know about traffic; they wanted to know about frequency and demographics.” In other words, the type of traffic: Did it include not just doctors but healthcare provider executives, and how often did they return to exhibitor booths?

But the exhibition hall data was not enough to keep ACC in RFID, and they dropped it for a few years before their research into attendee behavior gave them a compelling reason to return. While it showed that attendees were divided into distinct groups when it came to such factors as advanced planning, Walker says, “What was common among all these groups was that they were frustrated with the credit claiming process.”

Walker understood the frustration given the cascade of information and instructions that rolls down at each annual meeting. Even for attendees who attend each year, he explains, “there is a lot to take in and with CME that can be very stressful. It’s only natural for them to forget to update their itineraries or forget which sessions they attended—we wanted to remove that stress.”

With RFID, if the attendees attend the authorized CME sessions, they receive appropriate credit in the Credit Cart of the ACC Program Planner. If they stay for the first few presentations and go to another CME or MOC session to take in its last few presentations, that gets tracked as well. Some accrediting agencies might also require that they complete an assessment to show what they learned, but the only time that attendees must manually make a change regarding their attendance is if they leave one session before it starts and then enter another. The Planner Itinerary will show them attending both sessions, and will automatically register a “conflict” in the Credit Cart. They must then indicate the session that they did attend and delete the other one.

CTI Meeting Technology, which provides ACC’s Program Planner in addition to its Abstract Management System, collects the attendance data directly from Cvent, ACC’s RFID vendor. Mark Coe, CTI’s CEO, explains that they can further simplify the credit claiming process by showing the attendees only the credits and courses that are appropriate for their profile. “Before our system assigns the credits, it looks at the registration type. Those types could include a nurse, a technician, or a pharmacist. Even with physicians, there are different CME or MOC requirements for a U.S. doctor and, for example, a German doctor. If they qualify to download a Certificate, they don’t have to sort through a lot of irrelevant options. Instead, in the Credit Cart, they will only see the certificate that applies to them.”

Keeping Track of the Tracking Data

ACC provides all attendees the opportunity to opt-out if they don’t want to be tracked, but Walker says that he’s surprised by how well his members have received the return of RFID. “I’ve gotten hundreds of compliments about how seamless the tracking is with the Planner. Of course, I’ve gotten one or two complaints, too, regarding the security of the data that we collect.”

Ironically, protecting RFID data is no longer as much of a concern because standards for protecting all personal data have increased significantly with the implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These new rules apply to any association with an EU citizen as a member and require that individuals provide consent with an “intelligible and easily accessible form” before their personal data can be shared. The various firms processing it, like CTI, must encrypt it before passing it from one location or company to another, and the data must then be stored in hosting facilities approved under the EU-US Privacy Shield Framework. CTI uses servers that are part of the Amazon Web Services cloud, which is one of the few Privacy Shield hosts in the U.S.

If the new policies do indeed alleviate the attendee’s fear about the handling of their personal information, then the only real threat to RFID tracking may come from new technology—in particular, Bluetooth tags that can be read by battery-operated readers perched on waist-high stanchions and spread across the meeting area. Unlike RFID installations, the stanchions can be easily moved to multiple locations during the course of a conference. Although the Bluetooth tags cost dollars instead of pennies, they can be read at a much greater distance, and their readers cost a fraction of those required for RFID. Bluetooth transmissions also provide much more detailed real-time data on all the attendees’ movements throughout the meeting area, so that adjustments to such things as floor layouts and displays can be made on the fly.

For Walker, none of these advances mean much if they can’t translate into benefits for his members. “The more important thing about the tracking analytics is not the technology, but whether it allows us to improve the attendee experience, and we will always take a close look at that.”