Every pharmacist likely recalls the first time they signed their name to verify the count of controlled substance (CS) inventory after becoming licensed. The thought of what could happen if the count was off was unsettling to say the least. I vividly recall counting and recounting to ensure I didn’t miss anything. As time went on and I became a more seasoned pharmacist, the anxiety around ensuring an accurate count improved, but the “what if” was still always in the back of my mind.
What if there was a more accurate way to ensure that the count was correct – every time? As humans we make mistakes, but when it comes to accounting for CS there is no room for error. Pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and nurses are required to spend countless hours during their day counting CS and scanning barcodes one drug at a time. RFID technology is a solution that has the potential to decrease or eliminate counting errors from occurring while providing real-time visibility of controlled substance inventory. Widespread adoption of RFID to track controlled substances will require partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and automation companies to co-develop solutions that not only reduce errors, but also improve labor efficiency, improve safety, and bring down the overall cost of care. Implementing RFID technology into automation equipment including narcotic vaults, delivery carts, and automated dispensing cabinets (ADCs) could help reduce time spent manually counting and give pharmacy leaders peace of mind that every CS has been accounted for.
If we think about the medication use process for CS and start from the beginning, the first logical step to make this a reality would be to create a narcotic vault that is RFID enabled. Inventory in the vault is constantly changing and the accuracy of that inventory relies solely on pharmacy staff to manually count. Web-browser based visibility of controlled substances has been incorporated into systems today, but this functionality relies on manual processes that introduce opportunities for human error. Incorporating RFID technology into the vault would eliminate the need for manual counts and provide perpetual inventory updates in seconds. This would free up pharmacy staff to focus on more clinically relevant work rather than mundane repetitive operational tasks.
Once CS inventory is received in the narcotic vault, the next step is getting these critical medications up to the ADCs. Hospital policies vary when it comes to how CS are transported, however, best practice guidelines recommend transporting CS in secure, lockable, and tamper-evident delivery containers. RFID enabled carts could provide a crucial component to ensure complete visibility of CS chain of custody. Inventory removed from the narcotic vault could be transferred to the secure cart where the expected quantity could be verified instantly. Utilizing web-based software that works with RFID hardware would allow pharmacists to quickly verify, from any computer with internet access, that there are no discrepancies between what was sent from the vault and what is in the locked cart. This verification step has the potential to be completed by a pharmacist without ever physically needing to see or handle the drugs.
The final step in CS inventory management, before the drug reaches the patient, would be stocking the ADCs throughout the hospital. This presents another great use case where RFID could provide real-time CS inventory on each unit. Additionally, in the event of a drug shortage, pharmacy would have more accurate insights into their inventory and the capability to unload drugs from underutilized areas to relocate them to where they are needed most. Cabinets equipped with RFID would close the loop and provide a complete picture of CS inventory throughout the hospital.
As hospitals look for ways to improve efficiency, comply with numerous regulatory standards, and cut costs, technologies such as RFID could be the answer they are looking for. While medication management with RFID is still in it’s infancy, we can’t overlook it’s potential to completely redefine what CS inventory management means. It will take a collaborative effort amongst numerous stakeholders, but the benefits could be extraordinary. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have already started incorporating RFID tags on medications that are commonly stocked in a variety of kits and trays to help with inventory management. As more RFID read points are introduced, the list of medications that pharmaceutical companies are tagging will continue to grow. With the help of RFID technology, the anxiety that is caused by missing controlled substances could soon be a thing of the past.