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Tracking Control-Substance Drugs

A U.S. drug wholesaler launches an EPC RFID pilot to improve security for the nation’s most regulated pharmaceuticals.
By Jonathan Collins
Jun 29, 2004H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co., the seventh largest pharmaceutical wholesaler in the U.S., has launched an RFID pilot with the goal of improving efficiency and product safety in its supply chain. The company believes it is the first wholesaler to install an EPC RFID system to track controlled-substance pharmaceuticals.

“We see benefits in two key areas: product handling and logistics, and product supply chain integrity. Pharmacists are one of the most trusted professions in the world. We want to protect that supply chain,” says Robert Kashmer, vice president of information technology for H.D. Smith, which is based in Springfield, Ill.

For the first phase of the pilot, underway now, H.D. Smith staff is applying smart labels to deliveries of Schedule II drugs (such as morphine and codeine)—the nation’s most regulated pharmaceuticals—at the wholesaler’s distribution center in Springfield, Ill.

H.D. Smith says it must manually apply smart labels to items for the trial, but it believes that tagging will eventually be carried out by pharmaceutical manufacturers. During the pilot, H.D. Smith personnel use a handheld bar code scanner to read and verify the bar-coded stock-keeping unit (SKU) number on each individual Schedule II drug container delivered at the center. An antenna attached to a Matrics RFID reader then automatically reads the EPC on the bottle’s smart label and GlobeRanger’s RFID software associates the EPC number with the bar-coded SKU for the product within the container. The pilot uses EPC Class 0 read-only smart labels from Matrics.

The tagged items will also be tracked at one of the distribution center’s shipping gates. The individually tagged containers are placed in shipping totes, with each tote usually carrying either 12 or 24 containers. The company says it should be able to test the ability of its RFID system to record 100 percent read rates without having to disrupt its current operations. “We already operate 100 percent outbound [bar code] scanning at all our distribution centers, so we will know what items are in each shipping tote as they pass through the portal. When the RFID is proven, we’ll flip the process and RFID scan first,” says Kashmer. If portal cannot read each smart label’s RFID tag 100 percent of the time, the company will then scan each the bar code of each container after the tote passes the portal. If portal succeeds in reading tags 100 percent of the time, the company will no longer use the bar code scanner.

H.D. Smith’s trial will use a single Matrics SR 400 reader with five attached antennas. Four of the antennas will be used in the shipping portal, with the fifth used at the receiving area. The pilot, which is not connected to H.D. Smith’s enterprise computer systems, was developed by RFID implementation specialists Franwell, based in Plant City, Fla., and H.D. Smith’s own IT department. Franwell installed the Matrics RFID system and also developed internal systems data integration and operating procedures that linked with GlobeRanger’s iMotion Edgeware RFID application, which manages shipping and receiving processes and provides reporting functions within the pilot.

All the drugs being tagged in the trial are covered by U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency special procedures, which means that strict records have to be kept about their movement. According to H.D. Smith, the RFID trial is the first step in enabling a detailed history for each drug container that shows where each bottle has been throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain. “Right now this is all done with paper,” says Kashmer.

A second phase of H.D. Smith’s pilot will see the company installing an RFID reader at a retail drugstore to extend the benefits of RFID deployment further into its supply chain to register and protect deliveries at retail stores, although no date has been set for the end of the first phase of the trial.

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