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U.S. Biologics Distributor Markets RFID Solution to Its Customers

FFF Enterprises believes its Verified Inventory Program-Consignment system can lower a hospital's costs by automating the inventorying and monitoring of blood products, vaccines and pharmaceuticals stored in cabinets located onsite.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 03, 2014

The management of medicines, blood products and vaccines can prove challenging for hospitals, physicians and distributors. Patient care providers want to have the right medications or biopharmaceuticals on hand when their patients need them, but many of those products, often valued at thousands of dollars, have sensitive temperature storage requirements and short shelf lives, making onsite storage unfeasible. FFF Enterprises, a major distributor of plasma, vaccines and biopharmaceuticals in the United States, has developed the Verified Inventory Program-Consignment (VIPc) system, an RFID-based solution intended to make it possible for the company's customers to track these sensitive products, as well as the conditions in which they are stored.

VIPc, commercially released in December 2013, uses the Intelliguard Inventory Management System from MEPS Real-Time, an RFID medication-management solutions provider based in Carlsbad, Calif. MEPS Real-Time installs its RFID-enabled cabinets at FFF Enterprises' customer sites, such as at a hospital or a physician's office. FFF then supplies plasma, vaccines and biopharmaceuticals fitted with passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags. The cabinets begin reading tagged medications stored within, and transmitting each tag's ID number, along with the collected temperature readings, to Intelliguard software hosted on a server by MEPS Real-Time. The software, known as Cloud Connect, records when an item is removed and, if it is returned, how long it remained out of the cabinet. It also determines which expiration dates are imminent, and can help FFF and its customers identify goods that need to be reordered.

With FFF Enterprises' VIPc program, cabinets with built-in readers track temperature-sensitive medications stored within.
One hospital is currently installing the VIPc system, says Patrick Schmidt, FFF Enterprises' CEO, while numerous others plan to launch the technology during the coming weeks.

Historically, FFF Enterprises has discouraged its customers from pre-ordering vaccines, plasma or other biopharmaceuticals to be stored for use on patients on an as-needed basis. The products, often valued at between $2,000 and $5,000, are very sensitive to temperature changes, and have a short enough shelf life that there is the potential for an item to expire before being administered. If a hospital were to pre-order goods and then perceive that they might expire without being used, Schmidt explains, the facility would want to return those products to FFF Enterprises, but that would lead to other potential problems. FFF would not be able to send a soon-to-expire product back to its manufacturer, and shipping that item to another hospital more likely to use it soon would pose problems for that receiving hospital. One issue, Schmidt says, is that FFF Enterprises would not be able to guarantee that the item had been stored at the proper temperature by the previous customer, or know how much time it had spent outside of a temperature-managed cabinet.

MEPS Real-Time's Shariq Hussain
As a result, FF Enterprises has encouraged customers to refrain from ordering a product until a specific patient has an imminent need for it. In the event of an emergency, however, a hospital could face delays while waiting for a product to be delivered.

With the VIPc solution, the products remain visible to both the customers and FFF Enterprises in real time. The cabinet, available in sizes of 2.3, 5.2 and 26 cubic feet (a fourth size of 12 cubic feet is now in development), is temperature-controlled, and also comes with built-in RFID readers and antennas, explains Shariq Hussain, MEPS Real-Time's CEO. Each cabinet is sized specifically for the use case of a customer that will be using it. MEPS employs readers from such manufacturers as Impinj and Trimble's ThingMagic division.

To track its products, FFF Enterprises utilizes Avery Dennison RFID tags and labels that can be read when items, especially those filled with liquids, are densely packed together.

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