RFID Tracks Specialty Drugs Through Pharmaceutical Network

Asembia has deployed a UHF RFID-based solution to track the movement and status of specialty medications as they flow from the distribution center to pharmacies and to patients, thereby preventing the dispensing of expired products.
Published: August 29, 2018

Asembia, a health-care service, contracting and technology company, is managing the inventory dating and expiration of its high-value medications using an RFID system from Truecount Corp. Since launching the UHF RFID system this year, Asembia reports that both the organization’s distribution arm and its pharmacy members have been better able to manage the dating and expirations of inventory, and have thereby minimized product returns.

Truecount had already created a simple, inexpensive way to date and track inventory or assets. Working with Asembia, Truecount adapted that system for seamless integration with Asembia’s inventory-management tools. Tag provider Charming Trim & Packaging provided the UHF inlay labels that are attached to the pharmaceutical packaging. Asembia, headquartered in Florham Park, N.J., employed Trucount’s Simple RFID software solution.

Asembia’s Snehal Patel

Asembia was founded more than a decade ago to provide group purchasing and contracting services for new biologic medicines and other specialty drugs that aren’t dispensed at traditional pharmacies. These days, the company collaborates with its network of pharmacy members, as well as its manufacturer partners, prescribers, payers and other stakeholders to provide a full suite of services to the specialty pharmacy industry, including the targeted distribution of select drugs and medical devices.

The company has grown as the specialty pharmacy market has expanded with new and often expensive drug launches. Tracking the specialized distribution of these medications through its network of stakeholders can be complex. Many of these specialty medications have a relatively short shelf life. As a result, says Snehal Patel, Asembia’s senior director of pharmacy network and market access, “One of the key challenges we face as a distributor is product shelf life and expiration.”

For example, Patel says, “One of the products we distribute has 14- to 15-month dating [shelf life] at the time of arrival to our distribution facilities.” Additionally, patients receiving this product are guaranteed that it will not expire within less than one year after purchase. That means Asembia and its pharmacy network members have only two or three months, at most, to turn over product inventory before the goods are no longer saleable.

Prior to employing the Truecount RFID system, Asembia and its pharmacy network members either maintained a digital inventory based on their starting inventory minus dispenses, or manually counted and reported inventory down to the lot and expiration. “This was a tedious and unscientific method,” Patel explains, “that allowed too much room for human error.”

In seeking a solution, Asembia was looking for a real-time inventory system that could provide inventory accuracy down to the specific lot and expiration number for each product at every participating pharmacy. Asembia dedicated time to researching a variety of RFID-based inventory-management solutions, focusing on what it said was the most critical element: software integration. Since Asembia and its member pharmacies use its own workflow-management software, known as Asembia-1, the firm needed a solution that would integrate RFID data regarding the movement and status of inventory with that platform.

How It Works
Each product is tracked from distribution center to patient. First, a passive UHF RFID tag is applied to each container of medication. To create the proper tag for the application, Charming Trim & Packaging tested a variety of products, then selected its 15X40 u7 inlay, which is designed for unique applications. “It performs well on these types of applications,” says Jeremy Van Houten, Charming Trim & Packaging’s global account executive, “so after testing, it proved to be the right inlay for this type of application.”

Truecount’s Zander Livingston

These labels are designed with a low-release adhesive, enabling them to adhere well to Asembia’s packages, Van Houten explains, though they can also be removed without leaving residue on the package. “This was a request by Asembia,” he states, “so we designed this label specifically for their application.”

Asembia applies the tags at its distribution facility, and the software links each product to its unique ID encoded to its tag. After a participating pharmacy places an order, explains Zander Livingston, Truecount’s CEO, Asembia employees select the necessary drugs, then use Zebra Technologies RFD8500 UHF RFID readers, connected to an Apple iPod, to interrogate all tagged inventory prior to shipping.

The Truecount Simple RFID software then captures and manages data about the distribution of each new product for every pharmacy. For shared visibility, all scanned inventory is processed and published in real time to a custom dashboard powered by the Asembia-1 system. In this way, Asembia can achieve visibility into inventory at each pharmacy location. The pharmacies can then access data on the Simple RFID software, which resides on an Asembia-hosted server. These member pharmacies can use the system to track their own inventory as well.

When a product order is received, pharmacy personnel scan all goods going to that customer with the pharmacy’s own handheld RFID reader, thereby updating each item’s status as sold. Every evening, the staff also conducts an inventory scan of all remaining stock, which can be reconciled with the dispense data in Asembia-1.

In the event that a product is recalled, pharmacy employees can simply input the item’s information, put the RFID reader on Geiger counter mode, and quickly locate and collect any medications that need to be removed from the shelves. In addition, Asembia can track product down to the lot and expiration dates. Based on certain expiry dates, the company can ensure that all pharmacies are following protocol and are dispensing appropriately dated drugs.

The technology can also expedite the returns process for any product determined to be unusable due to dating. “This is a tremendous benefit to the pharmacies who previously managed inventory and initiated returns,” Patel states. “Now, the return process is initiated by Asembia.” When it comes to benefits, he says, visibility ensures that no product expires or is unaccounted for. “Having that visibility throughout the supply chain, and all the way to the patient’s hands, is the ultimate benefit of this solution.”

In the meantime, for Asembia’s network pharmacies, the process of scanning inventory has eliminated the manual labor required for pharmacy employees to count each unit and report back lot numbers and expiration dates to Asembia on a regular basis. The pharmacies report that they now save time and are better able to provide the appropriate data in a timely fashion.

When the RFID system was launched earlier this year, Asembia was able to install the software remotely. Truecount then provided remote training that required only one day, Livingston reports. “Asembia is able to implement as they expand into new locations or pharmacies,” he says. “Hence, the name ‘Simple.'”

With the help of Charming Trim & Packaging, Livingston says, “We have designed a very simple way to tag up the products while supporting their post-pack product information.” Asembia plans to continue to expand the RFID tagging process throughout the next year. “We are currently working to enhance the process through our Asembia-1 platform,” Patel notes, in order “to automatically trigger order replenishment by tying dispenses to on-hand inventory.”

The solution’s greatest benefit, according to Patel, is the assurance that patients receive safe, effective products. By incorporating Truecount’s inventory-management system into Asembia’s existing services, he says, “We can align supply chain logistics with product delivery to ultimately enhance patient care.”