The day may be coming when Lipitor, Concerta and Zoloft won't be the only items on your local pharmacy's shelves; there could be plenty of RFID chips as well. To help prevent counterfeit drugs from slipping into the supply chain, some pharmaceutical heavyweights have formed what could become a very influential alliance to look at the feasibility of attaching radiofrequency identification devices to their products.
Led by consulting group Accenture, the new group represents an unusual alliance of big drug manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Abbott Laboratories, Barr Pharmaceuticals, Cardinal Health, CVS Pharmacy, Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Rite Aid have all joined the effort to explore ways RFID can help tighten security and, in the process, boost distribution efficiency. The new alliance has already begun working with the Food & Drug Administration's Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force to determine how to use RFID and electronic product code (EPC) technologies to mitigate the risk that counterfeit drugs will make it to market. How can a tiny chip foil counterfeiters? By providing airtight tracking. In theory, manufacturers could affix a tiny digital memory chip identifying a drug's place of manufacture and origin date onto each pallet, case or even package (in the case of drugs at high risk of counterfeiting). Assuming the chip has read/write capabilities, workers could add and update information at every step in the distribution process. Once the drug arrived at its destination, a pharmacist or distributor could scan the chip to obtain a record of its transit history and check its legitimacy.
The benefits of using RFID aren't limited to tightening security, of course. In the coming months, the group plans to test ways to use RFID technology to improve expiration date management, lot and batch tracking, returns management processing, shipping and receiving accuracy, operational integrity and product security and consumer safety.
"[RFID] technologies are becoming widely recognized as a powerful tool," says Jamie Hintlian, a partner in the health and life sciences practice at Accenture, the consulting company that's leading the project. "The RFID initiative is groundbreaking in that it brings together leading companies across the pharmaceutical industry not only to design and evaluate ways to improve supply chain integrity and accuracy but, also to help consumers receive authentic medicines."