Gillian Ewers, vice president of marketing at electronics company PragmatIC, discusses how RFID technology can be used throughout healthcare.
PragmatIC integrated circuit
The pressures facing the healthcare sector in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic are unprecedented. Despite the determination of amazing staff, the already-stretched system has found itself further challenged by the sheer scope, speed, and severity of the crisis. At this crucial time, it is more important than ever for industries to unite in developing innovations that will help the health service now and in the future.
Efficiency is key
One part of the healthcare sector that would benefit significantly from advances in technology is pathology. This is a high volume, complex and time-critical service where efficiency is key. In England there are currently 105 hospitals providing pathology services, carrying out over 1 billion tests every year, according to the Royal College of Pathologists. The logistics involved in moving, storing, and analysing these samples are complex. Every misplaced sample and late test causes problems. If we can enable pathology labs to run more efficiently there is the potential for huge financial savings and significant improvements in outcomes for patients. The challenge that faces all labs is managing their capacity, and how samples are prepared for transportation to the lab is a key factor. In the current process the primary care provider bags individual samples, adds paperwork in a second bag, then collects several samples together in a third bag. The process is reversed at the lab, manually unpacking and recording each sample, which takes time and of course there is scope for human error. Samples are sometimes not sent, can be lost, or damaged in transit, or barcodes on labels can be compromised and deemed unreadable. Re-ordering a test may then be necessary.
Another area where novel technology could make a massive difference is preventing counterfeit medicines. This has been an increasing problem for many years fuelled by a rise in online pharmaceutical sales. In the current crisis this issue has become even more evident as people rush to buy medicines online which are in short supply in pharmacies. In fact, the World Health Organisation has recently warned about the stockpiling of basic medicines and a worrying increase in the circulation of dangerous counterfeit pharmaceutical products. In some cases, they simply contain the wrong ingredients meaning they will not solve the medical need; but there is also the risk of toxic components which could cause great harm. To try to combat counterfeit medicines, regulatory authorities have been putting various measures in place. For example, the European Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) regulation which requires pharmaceutical companies to include a unique identifier (UID) and an anti-tampering device. These are used by suppliers to verify and authenticate the products prior to distribution and can also be used by retailers and consumers to ensure integrity up to the point of consumption or application. Currently companies are using 2D barcodes for the unique identification, but these codes are easy to replicate and difficult to read in large numbers.
RFID technology to the rescue
A promising solution to both these problems is using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology and flexible electronics. For pathology samples an RFID label can be applied with a unique ID so that they could be quickly scanned and tracked, at multiple points, throughout their journey. This would speed up the process and significantly reduce errors. To stop counterfeit medicines RFID item-level digital tracking technology could also be used to enable pharmaceutical products to be traced globally through the distribution supply chain and into the retail environment. RFID technology is not new, but previously the costs have been too high for use in large volumes due to the cost of the conventional electronics involved (RFID tags which include integrated circuits). PragmatIC has developed a new generation of ultra-low cost and flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs), which significantly reduces the cost of RFID labels.
If this global crisis has shown us anything, it is the need to streamline processes to ensure we can deliver the right items to the right places in the shortest possible time. We need to accelerate the use of technology to deliver these efficiencies in the healthcare sector.