The requirements of the pharmaceutical industry are very different from those of any other industry and this is reflected in its rapid adoption of RFID. Drugs are taken by the vulnerable and copies are typically lethal. Just a few counterfeits can severely damage a pharmaceutical brand and raise huge political and moral issues. Where something goes wrong, recall procedures must be exceptionally robust with pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, these products are typically very profitable and all in the value chain - manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and retailers - are technically very literate and willing to spend on improving the situation.
Those in certain parts of the drug value chain have other problems they wish to solve. For example, pharmacists loathe stocktaking, which has to be more frequent and more thorough than is the case with food. Further, a more efficient supply chain could save money, which can be diverted to developing new drugs. Error prevention with drugs at item level has already been proven by AstraZeneca with over 30 million RFID enabled syringes of Diprivan®.
Not like the food industry
Today, the food industry is mainly focussed on rolling out pallet and case RFID at the behest of the retailers and the US Military, who enjoy the greatest benefit from such tagging. By contrast, the pharmaceutical industry is mainly focussed on item level tagging, meaning the small plastic bottles and packs that appear even in the private house and at on the dispensing trolley in the hospital. Unlike the food industry, the primary motivation is anti-counterfeiting - it has been on the increase in advanced countries though it is still miniscule. This is a wakeup call not a crisis. A seminal report on the need to use RFID to establish the pedigree of drugs was issued by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2004 after consultation with the industry, which is equally committed.
The FDA recommended that all item level prescribed drugs supplied into the US market be RFID tagged within two years. This is not going to happen on time, partly because of the thoroughness applied in investigating whether HF or UHF is the best solution and work on standards and what security and data handling should be used in the computer systems. However, a good start has been made. The world's largest drug company Pfizer, which had earlier led the way in using 2D barcodes on drugs, has once again led the way with item level RFID, tagging all packages of Viagra from December 2005. It chose TAGSYS of France, because its choice is HF, a frequency mentioned by the FDA two years earlier and the subject of a report on suitability jointly issued by Texas Instruments, Philips and TAGSYS in the intervening period.
Pioneering RFID with pharmaceuticals
Frankly, the food companies and their RFID suppliers are not working very hard on item level RFID at present because most of their appropriate resources are dedicated to pallet and case tagging rollouts. A few retailers have made a success of item level tagging of apparel but this is large, dry and non-metallic in the main so UHF is often the favoured solution.
The market for pharmaceutical tagging may roll out in the following fashion, particularly if the US mandates it on prescription drugs in the way it has already done with barcodes:
The market for pharmaceutical tagging at item level - a possible scenario 2006-2010
Source: IDTechEx. See full details in the IDTechEx report RFID Forecasts, Players & Opportunitites 2006-2016.
Unusually broad range of benefits
RFID on pharmaceuticals may constitute only 35% of all item level tagging in the world by numbers in 2006, because the tagging of library, laundry, rented clothing such as uniforms, apparel and some other items has been going on for some time already. However, because, uniquely, drug tagging has so many compelling drivers for all in the value chain as well as regulatory authorities, it may rise to be around 60% of all item level tagging in 2010. Frankly, no other form of RFID can claim such a full range of benefits, including saving lives, preventing sickness, reducing theft, fraud, counterfeiting and costs, providing more responsive customer service and recalls of higher integrity.