Radio frequency identification (RFID) is increasingly becoming the new standard for tracking packages of medicinal products along the entire supply chain, from production to end users. The global RFID technology market in healthcare was valued at $ 2.58 billion in 2018 and it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 22.4% up to 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research. The Falsified Medicines Directive greatly supported the use of RFID in the pharmaceutical sector, as well as other tracking technology i.e. barcodes, with revenues of $ 778.9 million in 2018 for the pharmaceutical tracking segment.

The pharmaceutical industry already uses temperature sensors or RFID tags, but it is limited to certain applications which only take one part of the supply chain into account without being holistically structured”, explained Frank Jäger, managing director at Faubel, in an article on European Pharmaceutical Manufacturer.

The driving forces supporting RFID

Driving forces for this expansion are, according to Grand View Research, the reduction of operative costs, the increased adoption of the technology in the healthcare sector to optimise the efficiency of the supply chain and the need to limit visits to hospitals, with the overall final goal to improve patient safety. RFID technologies also allow the real-time management of stock and inventories. 

The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), where different products and devices are freely communicating  with one another, is deeply changing how many healthcare procedures are run and dispensed. It is now possible to track the assumption even of a single pill, enclosing an RFID microchip which communicates from the body’s interior to a remote control station the patient’s biological parameters. In hospitals, RFID may be used for example to monitor storage and transport conditions for blood bags, or to mark each device used in the surgery room, thus lowering the probability of medical errors. And each patient can receive upon admission a special wrist band including all information about his/her medical history, disease and  treatment regimen.

What is RFIDs

The term RFID encompasses a wide range of different smart technologies allowing for the easy communication of items connected to the IoT. Radio waves are used to share information between the tag and the reader. Each RFID tag can be associated to a Unique Identification Number (UIN), so to exactly track each different item. It is so possible, for example, to track every single package of a medicinal product, or each single box or pallet included in a certain shipment, without the need of the line-of-sight typically used to read barcodes: contents of an entire truck can be checked with RFID in just few seconds. 

An article from Resource Label Group describes the different types of technologies available on the market, differing upon the frequency range they use (low, high and ultra-high) or the fact they are active (powered), passive (un-powered) or semi-passive (battery-assisted). Low-frequency (LF) RFID tags operate at 30 KHz to 300 KHz, they are slower but less prone to interferences by liquid and metals. High-frequency (HF) RFID tags operate at 3 to 30 MHz and have a higher memory capacity. This category includes also the Near field communication (NFC) tags, specifically using the 13.56 MHz frequency, that requires reader and tag are at just few centimetres of distance to be read (one at a time). Ultra-high-frequency (UHF) RFID tags operate at 300 MHz to 3GHz, have a lower price and are often used to manage the supply chain.  

RFID and the pharmaceutical supply chain

Logistics is a crucial part of the pharmaceutical supply chain: the last decade saw great investments to improve the transition towards a new model based on new smart technologies, among which are RFID and the IoT, together with artificial intelligence and the blockchain. The impact of RFID on this sector has been recently examined by Usha Sharma in an article on Express Pharma.

The smart label technology can be applied to all steps along pharma development and manufacturing, including the tracking of raw materials supplies and the production and shipment of batches for clinical studies. Smart labels, for example, can be very usefully applied to avoid the need for re-labelling of investigational medicinal products during clinical trials due to changes in the stability data obtained in parallel to the study, explained Frank Jäger.

The final objective of smart warehouses’ management is to avoid both under- and over-stocking, a goal often pursued through a wide use of automation in all activities. New generation warehouses are characterised by active and passive temperature loggers for continuous temperature monitoring, directly linked to tables listing the stability properties of the different products, so to immediately activate alerts in case of deviations. Smart labelling solutions also allow for the optimisation of logistics operations and inventory management across the different manufacturing sites and warehouses typical of big pharma companies.

The Falsified Medicines Directive asks the industry to closely track each passage along the supply chain to minimise the risk of counterfeiting. With this regards, smart labels are also useful at the pharmacy level, as they support pharmacists both in checking the received shipments and in dispensing the products to patients. These too can use sealing labels containing RFID to check for the integrity of the package. 

Tracking of temperatures and times during shipments is critical to ensure the quality and efficacy of many pharmaceutical products, especially in the field of advanced therapies. RFID allows for the real-time tracking of all needed aspects, thus supporting the immediate activation of mitigation actions were appropriate. GPS technology support the exact location of each item at each time. The overall security of the supply chain is improved, limiting the risk of theft and the possible shortage of medicines due to diversion processes. 

The possible uses of RFID labels in hospitals

RFID technology has potentially limitless applications in the healthcare sector, according to Marsha Frydrychowski, Resource Label Group’s director of Marketing Services (see here the article on Packaging Europe). This technology may greatly improve the overall efficiency of services provided by hospitals, for example, since it allows for the closely monitoring of each single step or procedure, from checking for the correct storage conditions for medicines to the dispensing of diagnostic testing and medications, from surgery procedures to patient care. And greater efficiency means also reduction of general costs, an evergreen target for hospital managers called to keep costs under strict control. 

The central hospital database collects all the UIN associated to each single RFID tag, applied on each product at the moment it is received by the hospital; tags are more difficult to duplicate than barcodes, according to the article on Packaging Europe. RFID labelling also allows for an improved productivity, with up to 700 products read per second. The use of smart inventories and cabinets may also assist a more efficient management of the internal hospitals’ supply chain, reducing the risk of errors while dispensing medications and improving costs savings, as all personnel can easily locate the exact position of the product of interest, for how long it has been stored and the expiry date. Inventory management is also easier, as the database is automatically updated.