RFID technology: Experts assess its merits, drawbacks

September 27, 2004

Does radio frequency identification (RFID) technology have a future in automated drug distribution? This hot technology is rapidly gaining momentum with drug companies, chain pharmacies, and distributors as a way to combat counterfeit drugs. And recently Mountain View, Calif.-based Omnicell Inc. rolled out a p rototype RFID version of its OptiFlex inventory management system.

Does radio frequency identification (RFID) technology have a future in automated drug distribution? This hot technology is rapidly gaining momentum with drug companies, chain pharmacies, and distributors as a way to combat counterfeit drugs. And recently Mountain View, Calif.-based Omnicell Inc. rolled out a p rototype RFID version of its OptiFlex inventory management system.

RFID works by putting tags that transmit radio waves on labels. Similar to the "E-ZPass" tags that are placed on car windshields, RFID uses radio waves to activate the tags that are read electronically. With the OptiFlex system, for example, end users log on to verify their patient and then remove the RFID-tagged supply item. Then, in real time, the item is recorded for inventory management and simultaneously charged to the patient.

But will RFID work its way into the automated drug distribution arena as an additional level of security? Ray Vrabel, Pharm.D., director of professional affairs for Omnicell, thinks it has a shot. "It could extend to medication cabinets on the nursing unit," he said. Working in the same mode as existing RFID supply cabinets, an auxiliary cabinet could be added to existing medication dispensing cabinets. "Or we could have an auxiliary cabinet where supplies of items with RFID tags could be placed in medication dispensing cabinets." He explained that RFID cabinets would be appealing because they require no user activity other than opening the door and taking out what you want. "It's a no-brainer tool. No scanner, and you don't have to remember to do something or press a button."

In addition, Vrabel believes that there's a potential application on the nursing unit for bulky, more expensive items such as premixed, patient-specific IV solutions for which the RFID tag is part of the IV preparation in the pharmacy. "It potentially can solve the problem of all of the premixed antibiotics pharmacists prepare in the pharmacy." Right now, he said, those items are put on the nursing units with limited security.

Vrabel envisions other pharmacy applications for RFID, including in the area of controlled substances. Omnicell already has an auxiliary cabinet that provides physical control of controlled substances in the pharmacy. But Vrabel believes placing an RFID cabinet in the central pharmacy for controlled substances would further enhance the security and control because the cabinet can let you know what's inside and what's been taken out immediately.

Another pharmacy application could be in conjunction with a central pharmacy storage distribution/ inventory control system that utilizes a horizontal or vertical carousel for managing most of the drugs in the central pharmacy. "That's a great system for inventory control. But there is still an opportunity for users to take out more or less than what they were supposed to at the time it's taken off the carousel," said Vrabel. So for those items that R.Ph.s want more control of on the pharmacy end and a higher degree of accuracy as to what has been taken out and what hasn't, he suggests an auxiliary RFID cabinet in conjunction with the central pharmacy carousel device.

Mark Neuenschwander, a Bellevue, Wash.-based technology consultant, acknowledged that the whole purpose behind the Food & Drug Administration's push for RFID on the heels of its regulation for bar-coding drug packages clearly has to do with counterfeiting. "However, there is no preliminary indicator I know of that the FDA will be requiring RFID tagging down to the immediate package, as is the case with bar codes," he said. "The great value of RFID is inventory tracking. Auto ID devices can nearly instantly [or in very rapid sequence] read an entire pallet of hundreds of boxes."

At the bedside, however, many experts contend that RFID tags present a significant limitation. The point-of-care RFID reader will read everything in a range of proximity. Said Neuenschwander, "If there is more than one drug package in range, the device will read them all at once. In contrast, bar-code reading requires line-of-sight scanning one item at a time," ensuring safety.

Meanwhile, Omnicell has been getting a positive response to its OptiFlex RFID system. According to Vrabel, the company hopes to have OptiFlex RFID in beta-testing by the end of the year.