Europeans Test Drive Point-of-Use RFID

Smart label technology's expected to trim 30% from drug makers' logistics costs

Drugs in the Virtual Enterprise (DRIVE), a $4-million research project funded by the European Commission, is now studying the use of collaborative logistics and smart labels using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Partners for the project include the San Raffaele Research Institute and hospital in Milan, where the research is taking place, AstraZeneca and Glaxo Smith-Kline's Italian subsidiaries, and the IT firms Atos Origin and Bull.

Key elements of the program are a web-based collaborative IT platform connecting drug manufacturers and distributors to each other and to hospital databases, simulation software and a "smart cart," used to manage prescriptions and administer medications. Each patient involved in the pilot will be issued a smart bracelet including an RFID chip, while medication packages will also feature smart labels enabling real-time management of data including product code, lot number, expiration date, production location, and serial number of the item within the lot. The chip data architecture is based on the ePC standard proposed by MIT Auto-ID Labs to track and trace materials throughout the supply chain.

Previously, the concept had been demonstrated at the San Raffaele hospital using two-dimensional bar codes. Preliminary findings on 600 patients showed that the system reduced medication errors significantly, by up to 71% during drug preparation and administration, says project director Alberto Sanna. The program also protects patient data by severely restricting access: each authorized operator was uniquely identified with his own smart card.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers, meanwhile, estimate that phase one of the DRIVE project would allow logistic operative costs to be reduced by 30%, Sanna says. "Manufacturers could monitor requirements for each drug from prescription to effective consumption, guaranteeing a continuous control of consumption, avoiding stock-outs and minimizing inventory costs." The labels prevent drugs from being diverted, counterfeits from infiltrating the supply chain, and provide complete traceability for each drug, Sanna adds.

A task force within the project has compared the costs of RFID and two-dimensional barcoding for real-time supply chain traceability. And although the group's findings are preliminary and based on a limited sample of drug products, they already indicate that the systemic cost of two-dimensional optical code labels would be four times higher than that for RFID tags, Sanna says. Furthermore, RFID tags will allow users to perform value-added services in logistics and patient safety that would be impossible with static, read-only barcoding. "Preliminary results indicate the importance of extending these analyses," Sanna says.

D2, this second, RFID-focused phase of the DRIVE project, is now in the kickoff phase. The project's partners already include a number of European industrial and research institutes. Sanna hopes to enlarge participation to the widest possible community to demonstrate return-on-investment and business models for the pharmaceutical community and healthcare industries.

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