The current standard for medication tracking within healthcare systems demands a large amount of active human engagement, from scanning barcodes to manually counting units of medication. The manual nature of this work leaves room for errors and unsafe practices that can impact care and potentially endanger patients. Newer medication management systems, like those made possible with passive, seamless RFID-based technology, can provide insight into the location, status, and quality of medications throughout their lifecycle, helping hospitals and healthcare practitioners (HCPs) maintain the highest standards for patient safety.
Visibility: The cornerstone of safe medications
Visibility into the entire drug lifecycle, from manufacture to administration, is crucial for the well-being of patients, HCPs, and healthcare systems.
The protocols and pressures that exist within healthcare systems are unique. Seamless medication management requires input and collaboration across multiple departments, from physicians to pharmacists, nurses, and hospital operations teams. Each of these disciplines faces its own challenges, from long working hours to multifaceted regulatory standards. The complexity of medications further complicates this system––medications don’t exist in a vacuum. They can get recalled, expire, become less accessible due to a shortage, or be counterfeited. Drugs can also be intentionally diverted from the healthcare system—a problem exacerbated by the ongoing opioid crisis.
Current medication management systems rely on barcodes that pharmacists and other professionals must manually scan within a healthcare facility to track the status of medications and maintain an accurate inventory. This system, however, provides limited insight into the lifecycle of medications. It also relies on humans to operate at peak accuracy, creating opportunities for mistakes and intentional malfeasance. In fact, trends over the last few years have indicated that a lack of traceability and dependency on manual, human monitoring furthers the drug diversion problems within facilities and pharmacies.
Ultimately, a lack of visibility into where medications have been, who has handled them, and their current status can have a direct impact on patients, putting them in danger of receiving expired, tampered, or counterfeited drugs––if they can access the medications at all.
The next evolution of medication management technology
Hospital systems need medication management systems and processes that cater to the mounting complexities of the healthcare environment. Better technology will allow the complex web of stakeholders within healthcare systems to work together to protect the safety of the most vulnerable group: patients. Ultimately, patients should have confidence in their medications and the system they exist in, medical staff should have the time and energy to focus on patients instead of medication tracking, and pharmacists should have adequate information to ensure medications are kept in supply.
Seamless, RFID-based medication management systems are one tool that can play an active role in mitigating the medication problems facing healthcare systems. Current RFID technology uses small tags or smart labels to store digital data, including unique identification and expiration information. This means RFID tags can allow medications to be tracked at an individual unit level, increasing the resolution of insight available to pharmacists and adding layers of protection against counterfeiting and diversion.
Unlike traditional barcode technology, which requires a direct line of sight between the scanner and the barcode, RFID technology uses radio waves to transmit information. This means data can be transmitted without the scanner coming into direct contact with, or even in sight of, the tag. Crucially, this allows for bulk scanning of medications. For example, an entire tray of medicines destined for a crash cart can be scanned in bulk in a matter of seconds. Paired with cloud-based management software, these systems enable healthcare facilities to closely track the location and status of medications with less manual work.
The potential of this technology is well-documented in other industries. Retailers, for example, increasingly use RFID-based tagging and tracking systems to maintain the visibility of inventory. Examples include the expansion of RFID tagging within stores of a variety of apparel retailers and Walmart, along with Amazon’s implementation of RFID to support cashier-less checkout systems.
Increased confidence with seamless medication management
As technology advances, seamless medication management systems have the potential to do more than just save time on inventory counts and provide identifying information. Effective medication management systems could help to improve confidence across the healthcare system, taking pressure off providers and allowing them to focus on patients. With cloud-based integrations possible across large segments of the care pipeline, information related to medications can be digitized and shared more seamlessly within a system. This helps medications and the providers handling them to be tracked and supported as needed. Imagine, for example, the complex situation that arises when a product is recalled, or a patient experiences an adverse effect. Hospital staff empowered by a fully integrated RFID-tracking system could know the exact vial of medication administered to a specific patient. Digitization could also help hospital systems keep a closer eye on their inventory across multiple facilities, helping them manage limited inventories, reduce waste, and improve cost savings.
The increased visibility possible with RFID-based medication management also provides support to medical systems as they navigate regulatory compliance. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) governs many of the medication management regulations within the U.S. Within this law, the US FDA has set requirements for electronic, interoperable systems to be implemented by November 2024 to identify and trace certain controlled prescription drugs as they are distributed throughout the United States. RFID-based systems can help healthcare systems meet this requirement, providing another layer of confidence in medication management.
The path forward
In many ways, the protection of patient safety through seamless, RFID-based medication management can be compared to the safety features in a motor vehicle. Drivers and passengers have trust that the safety features in vehicles, such as airbags and seatbelts, will help limit or prevent injury during an accident. These features were a necessary addition to vehicles, helping cut down on fatal injuries and making drivers feel safer. Patients deserve similar expectations of safety for their medications––they shouldn’t have to wonder if the medications they’re being administered are expired or counterfeited. The system in place should be an asset healthcare professionals can rely on to help protect patients when the time arises. In the same way that airbags were a natural evolution of vehicle safety technology, seamless, RFID-based systems are the next evolution of medication management technology.
As seamless, RFID-based medication management technology improves and becomes more widely implemented throughout the supply chain, its implications for digitization, regulatory compliance, and supply chain management are widespread. Together, these benefits feed directly into patient safety, allowing patients to feel confident that medications they are prescribed are safe, effective, and available.
Photo: zorazhuang, Getty Images