A 10-Year Road Map for Deploying RFID in Medicine

Advanced RFID solutions can be deployed to improve the safety, visibility, and efficiency of operations and business processes in the pharmaceutical supply chain and in hospitals.

By Bob Cornick, Vice President and General Manager
Avery Dennison RFID
 

RFID technology could be used to match prescription drugs to patients.

As radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology continues to mature and improve, there is a growing trend to explore new ways to apply the technology beyond Electronic Product Code compliance. Software application developers, systems integrators, technology partners, and forward-thinking end-users understand RFID’s automatic identification and data-capture capabilities and are looking to expand RFID’s applications.

Perhaps the two most important opportunities for RFID market ex­pan­sion are in the pharmaceutical sector—both pharmaceutical manufac­turers ­­and retail pharmacies—and in the hospital management industry. Pilot testing is already under way in both of these areas, involving applications such as patient identification wristbands, item-level-tagged drugs, laboratory samples, medical equipment, and patient files.

This trend is expected to continue over the next few decades. RFID holds promise in reducing drug counterfeiting and theft, increasing patient safety, and bringing greater operational visibility and efficiency. Over the long term, these benefits can help to alleviate the rapidly rising costs of pharmaceuticals and healthcare services.

Supply-Chain Security and Integrity

For drug manufacturers and distributors, one of today’s biggest challenges is to counteract global drug counterfeiting by ensuring the integrity and authentication of products across the entire supply chain. Many states are considering e-pedigree regulations mandating life cycle tracking and chain of custody for all prescription drugs. Florida has already enacted pedigree laws, and California’s electronic pedigree is set to take effect January 2009. For this kind of application, RFID tags can provide an ideal vehicle for rapidly encoding and reading unique identification tags.

In addition to combating counterfeit drugs, RFID tags can enable drug manufacturers and distributors to respond quickly and effectively to contamination threats and drug recalls by tracking and tracing the specific products involved, whether in the supply-chain pipeline or stocked on retailer shelves.

One major drug distributor recently conducted end-to-end pilot testing of an item-level RFID track-and-trace solution. The technology accurately tracked drugs from the manufacturer, to the wholesaler, to the pharmacy.

RFID in Retail Pharmacies

Retail pharmacies face multiple challenges, whether they are branches of major drugstore, supermarket, discount, or big box chains, or smaller, independent operators. Large chain pharmacies often experience the same type of unpredictable environment as other retail departments. They are subjected to seasonal surges, long work hours, a shortage of help, and frequent turnover of support personnel. Yet a pharmacist on duty has greater and more serious responsibilities than the average department manager.

A specialized, all-points RFID solution could be designed specifically for use in retail pharmacies. The system would include RFID tagging of virtually everything, including:

  • The locked Class II narcotics cabinet and each individual container therein.
  • The storage cabinet containing expensive, climate-controlled biologics, and each of their individual containers.
  • All pharmacy storage shelves, drug containers, and medical devices.
  • Labels on confidential patient drug records and insurance documents.
  • Personnel badges for every pharmacist, pharmacy technician, and anyone else having regular access to the area.

In addition to RFID tagging, there would need to be strategically placed, fixed RFID readers and handheld scanners. All hardware would then tie into a computer database, and the system’s “brains” and automation capabilities would be provided by a flexible and powerful suite of data integration and management software applications.

The benefits of such a system would be astonishing. The most immediate value delivered would be the absolute security and control of regulated substances and costly biologics. Every time these cabinets were accessed, the system would log the identity of the person dispensing, the time, and the amount dispensed. At the point of sale, the patient information would be recorded and entered into the files. This end-to-end tracking would surely reduce the risk of human error, theft, and fraud. Similar benefits would be gained for other stocked pharmaceuticals, devices, and supplies.

In addition, the system would make real-time inventory counts and replenishment reminders automatic. As a result, out-of-stock items and waste would be minimized. Drug expiration dates would be monitored, so returns could be made on a timely basis. Insurance forms and other compliance paperwork would be automated.

RFID in Hospitals

In the hospital industry, RFID technology can provide an even greater value proposition. Early RFID adopters in the manufacturing-to-retail supply-chain sector are starting to reveal how the technology is helping to bring order and increased automation to fast-paced distribution centers and retail supply chains. Similar benefits could be gained in busy, fast-paced hospital settings.

Could any environment possibly be tougher to manage and more prone to chaotic activity than a hospital, where crisis management is a daily occurrence? Staff physicians, nurses, and technicians must always be ready to respond instantly and efficiently to patient emergencies with the equipment, medications, and healthcare specialists required to address the situation.

In an RFID-enabled hospital, RFID tagging would be done on virtually everything, too, from drugs and supplies, equipment, drug carts, and medical devices, to patient wristbands and charts and staff and visitor identification badges. Fixed readers would be placed strategically on all doorways, corridors, nurses’ stations, storage cabinets, Class II narcotics and other medication carts, and wheelchairs and rolling equipment carts. Handheld, shelf, and task-specific readers would also be in key locations.

A sophisticated computer-aided management (CAM) software system would be installed to integrate and manage business process and operational data across the enterprise, similar to the way an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system manages data in manufacturing and business organizations.

Such a system would enable hospitals to automate and streamline the day-to-day healthcare workflow activities, as well as significantly reduce the redundant recording, logging, and reporting that is required. For example:

  • The use of Class II narcotics and other pharmaceuticals and supplies would be monitored and tracked to reduce theft and shrinkage.
  • Drug administration errors would be minimized by matching the right patient ID with the right drug and the right dosage with the patient’s chart. In addition, a log would be kept of who dispensed drugs, when, and to whom.
  • In the same way, operating rooms would virtually eliminate patient ID mistakes, ensuring the right surgery is performed on the right patient.
  • In emergencies, the system would know the location of the nearest equipment cart and the physicians on call.

Also, if the CAM system were to incorporate real-time electronic data interchange or the new EPCIS data-exchange capabilities with major healthcare insurance providers, communications between hospitals and insurance companies could improve significantly. Another benefit to automating the routine logging and reporting of healthcare information is that it decreases paperwork, improves accuracy, and establishes a data trail that can be used on the business side of the enterprise.

With an accurate record of hospital services rendered, diagnostic testing performed, equipment used, and medications dispensed, captured information can be imported and used for patient billing and insurance-filing processes.

Six Sigma Principles

One of the core tenets of the Six Sigma quality movement is the need to take a total-systems approach. Key to achieving Six Sigma quality is to benchmark and monitor key performance metrics and strive for continuous improvement. It is as true in the world of healthcare as it is in manufacturing that you cannot improve what you do not measure.

RFID alone cannot accomplish these benefits. Realizing such completely networked and synchronized systems would require a whole new infrastructure and a comprehensive change in the way our healthcare institutions are managed.

Yet incremental progress is already being made, with RFID being used as an enabling technology that can help capture data, track, and measure processes that were not measured before. Ultimately, as more pharmaceutical companies, retail pharmacies, and hospitals implement RFID solutions, results will become public, comparisons will be made, and best practices will evolve over time that will ultimately lead to a path of continuous improvement.

Bob Cornick is vice president and general manager of Avery Dennison RFID. He is responsible for the strategic direction and management of the RFID division. He previously served as vice president and general manager for Zebra Technologies RFID Solutions and Marconi Digital Imaging.

Avery Dennison RFID manufactures and markets RFID inlays through a network of label converters. It is a business unit of Avery Dennison Corp. (Pasadena, CA), a leader in pressure-sensitive labeling materials.

 

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