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RFID-Tagged Medications and the Healthcare Value Chain

RFID use is expanding in healthcare. How do you see it improving patient safety and clinician efficiency?


Although patient safety and clinician efficiency are different concepts, they are closely tied together—and become even more intertwined when RFID is leveraged.

To ensure patient safety, clinicians must ensure that they correctly determine a number of variables, often under a time constraint: Who is the patient? Which medication does he/she need? In what dosage, format, and when? Where is this medication? Is it close at hand, as it should be? Have I selected the correct medication from a tray or kit? Did I select the correct dosage and format from multiple options? Is this specific package of medication still unexpired? Is it from a valid batch/lot that was not affected by a recall?

Over the years, various automation technologies have been employed to help answer such questions more quickly and reduce errors. Just take a look at any pharmaceutical product, and it will most likely have multiple barcodes. Those barcodes are present to support automated processes.

Barcode solutions, however, have a number of limitations. Barcoding requires time to physically align the scanner and the barcode. The scanner must be in relatively close proximity to the barcode. It is easy to make a mistake and scan the incorrect barcode (think of two products near each other) or accidentally “double-tap” the same barcode. Barcode-reading is also a “one-to-one” transaction (one reader can only read one barcode at a time). And there are additional limitations.

RFID is by no means a panacea for the healthcare industry, but it does allow clinicians to answer the above questions even more quickly and with fewer errors compared to barcodes. With RFID-tagged medications, a simple “push of a button” can guide the clinician to the correct medication—sometimes quickly enough to make a life-saving difference. And the chances of administering an incorrect, potentially fatal medication are greatly reduced.

Another related concept is that RFID allows for the absolutely unique identification of medication units. Item-unique identification (as opposed to identifying a product type) can help healthcare facilities better manage their inventories and product locations, eliminate expired products, and track down products affected by a recall, all of which improve patient safety.

What are the current challenges in adopting RFID in healthcare?


With any technology, especially one new to healthcare, there are challenges. Two challenges that come to mind are ROI (Cost vs. return on investment) and standardization; What data should be encoded to tags for each application or use case?

Calculating cost and potential ROI can be difficult. Firstly, unforeseen challenges can arise when implementing an RFID solution (What happens when someone uses the microwave oven in the breakroom? This actually happened.). Supply chain issues are causing prices of the necessary components to rise rapidly, so nailing down costs in advance is difficult. If you are struggling with this challenge, I strongly advise seeking out a competent RFID solution provider and working through the cost-benefit calculations methodically in advance. If your potential partner does not employ methodical research and calculations of your specific business and application, it’s time to find another partner.

Assuming that a positive ROI has been calculated and we have a technical green light to implement an RFID solution, many specific questions will arise regarding the actual nuts and bolts of the solution. What tags should be used? How should the readers be configured? These questions should all be worked through systematically by qualified RFID experts. But one specific question is of particular interest to me: What data should be encoded to the tags? To put yourself into a proper frame of mind to address this question, just think of shopping at a grocery store. Regardless of which grocery store you go to, they are all able to quickly and efficiently scan a random item and know that it is a “12 oz. can, Coca-Cola Classic.” How is this possible?

The answer lies in standardization which is the next challenge. Barcode standards in the retail world are generally developed and administered by GS1. GS1 barcode standards are used in various industries, including retail, food service, and healthcare. The data elements encoded to GS1 barcodes are in the same format and sequence for each application and symbology. The encoded digits resolve universally to the same item. We need the same overarching standards for RFID encodings. GS1 is actively developing RFID encoding standards to tackle the use cases and challenges of the healthcare industry. Check out GS1’s recently published “Tag Data Standard, Version 2.0.”

Without a single, universally recognized set of encoding standards, the healthcare value chain will not be able to quickly and reliably read that can of Coke—whoops, I mean syringe of life-saving medication.

Where do you see the future of RFID in healthcare?


Between “now and the future” lie an infinite number of unknowns. But the future definitely includes RFID interoperability across the entire healthcare value chain. If we go back to our can of Coke at the grocery store, medications, medical devices, and assets of all kinds in the healthcare world will be universally readable (when desired and/or allowed) and quickly resolvable. This will lead to better inventory management, less shrinkage and loss, and lower operating costs—all leading to faster and better patient care and improved patient outcomes, which should be the ultimate goal of any healthcare system.

Implicit in my thinking is a boom in so-called “source tagging.” In simple terms, source tagging is when items are tagged at the manufacturing site. The items are tagged as early as possible. Again, we can cite our can of Coke and even the great majority of items at your grocery store. All of these items were “source barcoded:” The items were barcoded as early as possible in the retail supply chain, and now participants throughout the chain can all leverage and benefit from the same barcode. The same process will most likely happen in healthcare. Pharmaceutical products, medical devices, high-value assets, etc. will be increasingly source-tagged.

The future must also include sophisticated security measures around RFID solutions. Confidential data are often the norm in healthcare settings. The RFID community does have many highly secure options, but these are not widely known or understood. In the future, security options will be more clearly documented by the standards organizations, such as GS1, and widely implemented where appropriate.

About the Author
Chris Brown is responsible for ensuring that TSC Printronix’s RFID products and services support the functionalities and commands requested by the marketplace. He also serves as company liaison to RAIN RFID Alliance, AIM, GS1, and other industry and standards organizations. Participates in multiple industry workgroups with a focus on RFID numbering systems standards.

Fresenius Kabi recognizes the importance of continually innovating the pharmaceutical industry with auto-identification technologies to support accurate, efficient data collection and safer patient care. We value the opinions of industry leaders in this field working to achieve this common goal.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the company they represent or Fresenius Kabi USA, LLC.

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