IBM tunes RFID for tracking drugs

IBM Tuesday unveiled a radio frequency identification system for pharmaceuticals that is aimed at making it more difficult for counterfeit drugs to make it to market.

Between the time a drug is manufactured and when it is dispensed, a drug can change hands 10 times, IBM says. All those steps in the supply chain increase the possibility of drugs beings stolen, tampered with, or mingled with counterfeit products.

IBM's RFID system for pharmaceuticals uses software and services to automatically capture and track the movement of drugs through the supply chain. RFID tags are attached to the products at the unit, case or pallet level and keep tabs on drugs as they move from manufacturer to wholesalers, distributors, pharmacies and hospitals.

Each RFID tag contains a unique identifier that can be linked back to descriptive product information such as dosage and strength, lot number, manufacturer and expiration date. Companies can use the data to figure out where their products are, how long they have been in the supply chain, and which trading partner, pharmacy or hospital is currently in possession of them.

In addition to helping secure the supply chain, IBM's RFID system also is designed to help manufacturers and distributors more easily execute drug recalls, streamline inventory and improve product forecasting. Using RFID, real-time results of unit, case and pallet movement can be fed into a data warehouse and ERP systems to monitor shipments and authenticate product transfers, for example.

IBM's RFID system for pharmaceuticals is based on its WebSphere software platform. The system includes the WebSphere RFID Premises Server, which sits between edge devices and enterprise applications. It records all RFID events that occur on a given premise, and then correlates the RFID events through pattern analysis and application of business rules.

IBM's lineup also includes WebSphere RFID Device Infrastructure, which handles RFID event collection and reporting at the edge of the network. The software filters RFID data close to the readers and delivers it to business applications. The system uses third-party RFID tags, transceivers and readers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been exploring ways to combat the emerging threat of counterfeit drugs entering the U.S. drug supply. The latest report (http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/counterfeit/report6_06.html) from the agency's Counterfeit Drug Task Force, released in June, states that RFID is the most promising technology for implementing electronic track and trace in the drug supply chain, and that stakeholders should move quickly to implement this technology.

But RFID implementation so far has been slow, and the task force says it is disappointed with the lack of overall progress across the drug supply chain: "In the 2004 Task Force Report, we laid out milestones and goals for RFID implementation based on credible information that stakeholders gave us. Many of these milestones have not been met. The technology vendors uniformly told us that their RFID and e-pedigree solutions and technologies are ready to go, but manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers are slow to implement them."

According to the report, obstacles to wider adoption of RFID include a lack of standards; privacy concerns; concerns about the ownership of confidential business transaction data; challenges in serializing all products; concerns over the accuracy and speed of electronic devices and systems; and a lack of definitive data to determine how RFID will affect sensitive products such as liquids.

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