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Drug Distributor Uses RFID to Vend Meds

By RFID-enabling a refrigerated storage unit, ASD Healthcare is providing a Texas hospital with a way to ensure it always has enough drugs on hand for hemophiliac patients.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 23, 2006As Neil Herson was walking out of his suite at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas early last year, he grabbed a bottle of water from the minibar. The bottle sat on a pressure sensor that, as he lifted the container, sent a message to Bellagio's billing system to charge the water to his account. Minutes later, when Herson was settling his bill at the front desk, the beverage was on the bill. That was when it occurred to him that a similar system could be used to address a very different business process.

Herson is president of ASD Healthcare, a distributor of specialty drugs such as those made to stem bleeding in hemophiliac patients. (ASD Healthcare is a division of AmerisourceBergen Specialty Group, which provides pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution services, and is owned by drug distributor AmerisourceBergen.) The various drugs ASD sells for hemophilia patients can cost anywhere from $700 to $4,700 per vial, forcing most hospitals the company serves to keep very limited inventories of them on hand.

ASD and VendingTechnology have devised a way to equip the Cubixx brand of refrigerated storage cabinets (where hemophiliac drugs are stored) with RFID interrogators.

During surgery, however, a hemophiliac patient can require multiple vials of such drugs, which forces hospital staff and ASD to scramble to get more inventory to the hospital as quickly as possible. If ASD could enable hospitals to keep larger inventories of the drugs onsite, Herson realized, paying only for each vial as it is used, then that would simplify this process and free up some of the hospital's working capital. With RFID, ASD has been able to bring this concept to reality through a pilot program in a Dallas hospital that it expects to complete soon. Eventually, ASD hopes to deploy the program in hospitals across the country on a permanent basis.

After returning from Vegas, Herson shared his idea with David Richards, director of business operations at ASD Healthcare and the company's IT staff, which suggested that RFID be used to monitor and track the drugs. ASD then contracted VendingTechnology, a Dallas firm that provides solutions and integration services for vending-based technology, and asked its help in devising a means of equipping the Cubixx brand of refrigerated storage cabinets (where hemophiliac drugs are stored) with RFID interrogators (readers). Vending Technology, which supplies the Cubixx units to ASD, brought RFID manufacturer Sirit into the project.

Sirit devised a way to integrate UHF antennas into a storage cabinet's shelves, linking the antennas to a Sirit interrogator mounted to the exterior of the cabinet. Sirit says it customized its reader and antenna design to overcome the challenges of reading tags inside the Cubixx, which has metal in abundance and contains tightly packed rows of the tagged drug packages. Should ASD choose to deploy the RFID system widely and retain Sirit as its RFID hardware vendor, the drug distributor says, it would likely use Sirit's newly launched Infinity 510 reader (see Sirit Announces Infinity Interrogator), which was unavailable in time for the ASD pilot.

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