Promise and Gaps of RFID Technology

Nov. 1, 2006
Cardinal Health, Inc., (Dublin, Ohio) a provider of products and services supporting the health-care industry, announced the results from the first end-to-end

Cardinal Health, Inc., (Dublin, Ohio) a provider of products and services supporting the health-care industry, announced the results from the first end-to-end test of a technology that could further improve the safety and efficiency of the nation's pharmaceutical supply chain.

The pilot program tested whether ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID tags could be applied, encoded and read at normal production speeds during packaging and distribution of pharmaceuticals. Verifying the authenticity of medications along each step of the distribution process adds an additional layer of security to lessen the chance of counterfeit pharmaceuticals entering the supply chain.

"Cardinal Health's test of RFID under real-world conditions has demonstrated that the technology has real promise to provide an added layer of safety," said Renard Jackson, vice president and general manager of global packaging services for Cardinal Health. "While our pilot demonstrated that using UHF RFID technology at the unit, case and pallet level is feasible for track and trace purposes, a great deal of additional work needs to be undertaken by stakeholders across the industry to address significant challenges including global standards, privacy concerns and the safe handling of biologics. Until those challenges are addressed, direct distribution of medicine continues to be the best near-term approach to maintain the highest levels of security and efficiency in the pharmaceutical supply chain."

Data collected from the pilot suggest that it is feasible for RFID tags to be inlaid into existing FDA-approved pharmaceutical label stock, and the tags can be applied and encoded on packaging lines at normal operational speeds. Online encoding yields were 95% to 97%, and fine tuning of the process is expected to produce yields that approach 100%. The RFID tag application and encoding requires minimal adjustments to current labeling and packaging lines.

Unit-level read rate data varied widely depending on the locations and type of reading stations throughout the supply chain. Highly reliable unit-level read rates in excess of 96% were found when reading individual cases one at a time and when reading units mixed with other products in tote containers prepared for delivery to a pharmacy. However, as expected, unit-level read rates were not found to be reliable when attempting to read units within a full pallet of product.

While not 100% in all situations, case-level data were found to be more reliable during full pallet reads. The combination of business process changes, and further hardware tuning is expected to improve the reliability of case tag reads to 100%, however further tests are needed to prove this hypothesis.

In preparation for delivery to the pharmacy, individual bottles are picked and placed in tote containers with other products that did not have RFID tags. The unit-level read rates from the tote containers being read during the quality control phase were acceptable for track and trace.

Additional unit-level read rates while the product was in the tote containers were not found to be reliable during subsequent reading stations at the shipping dock of the distribution center and the receiving doors at the pharmacy.

Overall, data collected by Cardinal Health supports the theory that RFID technology using UHF as a single frequency at the unit, case and pallet levels is feasible for track and trace. However, challenges remain before it can be adopted industry-wide.

Source: Cardinal Health, Inc.