Radiofrequency identification (RFID) is among the technologies in the growing global market of smart packaging. While it’s not new, recent improvements in RFID have resulted in important applications in pharmaceutical and medical device packaging.
“… RFID is one of the 16 fundamental innovations for the next decade, as stated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which ranked it as the 10th most innovative technology of the last 25 years, for automatic data collection and traceability of goods,” wrote Profetto L. et al in their scoping review of the technology published in 2022.
Packaging with RFID, which uses radio waves to transmit and receive data, can reduce medical errors that occur in hospital operating rooms, as well as help solve black market drug counterfeiting, according to the review.
Arne Rehm, senior product manager RFID/NFC Solutions at Schreiner MediPharm, says there are two basic RFID ranges: high-frequency (HF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF) bands. Near-field communication (NFC) is based on HF, which is meant for short-range applications. UHF RFID is meant for long-range applications — for example, putting an RFID tag on the carton box of a stent and using it to manage inventory, according to Rehm.
Innovations in recent years have impacted the viability of using RFID to package medication and devices containing liquid and metal. The radio frequencies used for communication interfere with these substances, which limited the use of smart packaging.
“Using the new technologies has made [RFID packaging possible in these scenarios] because the influence of liquid can be managed in a way that you are able to read these kinds of containers or products in the read range that’s necessary for inventory management.” — Arne Rehm, Senior Product Manager RFID/NFC Solutions, Schreiner MediPharm
“Using the new technologies has made [RFID packaging possible in these scenarios] because the influence of liquid can be managed in a way that you are able to read these kinds of containers or products in the read range that’s necessary for inventory management,” Rehm says.
NFC technology also has advanced, including for uses like product authentication. Today, one can authenticate a product just by using a smart phone.
Authors of a review on emerging smart technology in healthcare write, “Numerous computer hardware technologies (smartphones, handheld readers, fixed point readers, desktop computers) can conveniently satisfy hardware and software requirements to store and read data obtained from RFID tags.”
US hospitals onboard with RFID for healthcare packaging.
Schreiner MediPharm creates customized solutions for the healthcare industry, focusing on pharmaceuticals and biologics, but the company also creates smart packaging for medical devices, like combination products with syringes or autoinjectors and pens. Rehm says that today’s RFID pharmaceutical packaging allows hospitals to integrate RFID in an automated inventory management system so that hospitals have 100% transparency on medication stock and expiration dates.
“So really, it manages the inventory in a manner that is not viable if you do some kind of pen and paper recordkeeping or even if you have some kind of barcode system where you actively scan each product,” Rehm says. “The target in this case is to provide a solution for hospitals but our focus is really working with the pharmaceutical manufacturer to begin with. In the past, and this is true for not only pharmaceutical products but also for other medical products like stents or high-value medical products like implants, when they arrived at the hospital, they were tagged with an RFID tag and then stored in an RFID cabinet to manage the inventory.”
Now the focus is on directly integrating RFID technology during manufacturing and storing all relevant manufacturing data into the RFID tag. When the drug product or device arrives at the hospital, staff scan the tag, which is compatible with the inventory management solution in the hospital, according to Rehm.
The benefits for hospitals include automated reordering and recall processes, as well as expiration date management. In the end, the high transparency possible with RFID could result in lower rates of medication errors.
For pharmaceutical companies, the benefit is increased supply chain transparency to combat such things as counterfeiting.
Authors of the review “Critical Success Factors and Traceability Technologies for Establishing a Safe Pharmaceutical Supply Chain” write: “Recent statistics show that counterfeit drugs will continue to penetrate the markets [that] have weak or uncontrolled [pharmaceutical supply chains, or PSC] and target more significant patient segments. This review on the various applications of traceability technologies in different phases of the PSC can assist in detecting drug counterfeits. The most important is blockchain technology in the raw materials supply phase, RFID and mass serialization for manufacturers, RFID and barcodes for packagers, RFID for distributors, RFID and blockchain for hospitals and pharmacies, and smartphones for patients.”
RFID’s future in healthcare packaging?
The trend is to develop RFID for implementation in medications and devices used in the home, according to Christian Liebl, director of business development, Schreiner MediPharm US.
Autoinjectors, for example, outfitted with NFC labeling can confirm the drug or product is not a counterfeit and is the one prescribed. Patients also can easily use the technology for patient support, education, and engagement, Liebl says.
“The smartphone is the point of interaction to directly use the technology. An NFC tag allows the patient to tap the product and connects them to information on how to use the product and the drug or patient-specific application at the point of use. Patients can also check authenticity,” Liebl says.
Not surprisingly, the cost is among the hurdles of widespread RFID use in the packaging of medications and healthcare devices in the US.
“Because these are electronic parts, if you compare it to a regular label then it’s definitely going to have an impact on cost,” Rehm says.
But once manufacturers start the process, RFID costs go down, according to Liebl.
“Once manufacturers invest in connectivity and a gateway into the digital world, and they initially intend to use [RFID] for, let’s say, patient adherence or patient education, it’s so easy to add a new use case because the infrastructure is already there. It’s easy to connect supply chain information to the existing RFID tag for let’s say expiration management or recall management …,” Liebl said.
Rehm agrees that once RFID is applied to a critical amount of product and the infrastructure is there, then widespread implementation is “a no-brainer decision.”
By updating the software on specific products, manufacturers can easily alert patients who scan their products about recalls or other issues, according to Liebl.
“That’s priceless,” Liebl says.
However, to avoid privacy-related issues and from a HIPAA perspective, RFID technology should not contain patient-specific data, Liebl says.
“Don’t connect the RFID tag to a patient and track his location, or where he’s moving in the US,” he says.
That’s not to say one can’t legally track the drugs themselves as they move through the supply chain.
“Diversion control is another example,” Liebl says. “When, let’s say, a subsidized product with an RFID tag that is intended to be sold in Mexico or South America reads in Miami, then the user is probably on vacation. But when a hole pallet worth of product reads in Miami, somebody is probably diverting the drugs.”
Regarding RFID uptake in the US market, Liebl says FDA-regulated products typically have a slower integration factor than the nonregulated industry.
“People in past years were very excited [about RFID] but often it didn’t turn into a tangible project. In recent years, we’ve seen a big change. RFID projects are getting much more traction, going into project development and some of them are already close to commercialization.” — Christian Liebl, Director of Business Development, Schreiner MediPharm US.
“People in past years were very excited [about RFID] but often it didn’t turn into a tangible project. In recent years, we’ve seen a big change,” Liebl says. “RFID projects are getting much more traction, going into project development and some of them are already close to commercialization.”
Best practices for RFID implementation for healthcare packaging.
The first step to implementing RFID is to find a credible partner to consult with, to avoid potential pitfalls, according to Liebl.
“If you implement connectivity, it has to work under any circumstances. Getting a random tag on Amazon Prime and ‘slapping it’ on an autoinjector is maybe cheap but not the most sustainable approach for your brand and for the patient,” Liebl says.
RFID technology, he says, is an integral part of a medical device and should be treated with the same attention to quality.
“You should go to an established RFID converter that has an FDA [Good Manufacturing Practices] GMP conform development and production process,” Liebl says.
Lisette Hilton is president of Words Come Alive. She loves covering medicine, health, wellness and fitness, and has been a reporter following her passion for more than 25 years.