RFID Speaks Up for Prescription Labels

By Claire Swedberg

Sam's Club and Walmart are the latest pharmacy chains to announce that they are using an HF RFID-based solution from En-Vision America that reads prescription data on a medication's tag, then audibly reads that information to a visually impaired patient.

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Sam’s Club and Walmart pharmacies have announced their use of a talking medication solution that leverages RFID technology across all the retailers’ pharmacies nationwide. The solution, deployed this summer, employs 13.56 MHz HF RFID tag reads to identify a bottle of medication, access data about that drug from the bottle’s tag, and then read out those details for patients. The technology, provided by En-Vision America, is intended to help the blind access their prescription information.

Walmart and Sam’s Club (a wholesale club owned by Walmart) initially piloted the technology at three pharmacies, beginning in 2012, then expanded to 1,200 stores. Now, the company is committing to providing the technology at all pharmacies, at the request of patients. Those with vision impairments often struggle to access information about the medications they are taking. Although prescriptions on medicine bottles can be printed in large print, that isn’t enough for some patients.

En-Vision America’s ScripTalk station

En-Vision America is a technology firm focused on assisting those with vision impairments. The company has provided assistive technology for the visually impaired since 1996, according to David Raistrick, En-Vision America’s VP and co-founder. It has offered systems such as a talking barcode scanner, as well as braille and large print. The talking prescription labels are the first of its products to employ RFID technology to identify an item and access content that is then spoken to a user. VA hospitals have been the earliest adopters of an RFID-based solution from the firm, known as ScripTalk. The solution employs an HF RFID printer and reader, compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, as well as a read station and tags that are attached to each medication bottle.

Pharmacies acquire En-Vision America’s Sciptability software, which integrates with their own prescription-management software. They also need the tags, which store written data. They can either print the labels with RFID tags built into them, using the ScripTalk printer (the 220-Z printer can print and encode a standard prescription label), or they can manually apply a one-inch-round medallion ScripTalk label to the bottom of each prescription bottle, which is already encoded and ready for data to be written to it. The pharmacy using the round label would still print a standard label for such details as the RX number that is affixed around the side of the container.

The ScripTalk station used in the pharmacy, Raistrick explains, comes with a USB cord to connect directly to a PC running the Scriptability software, which utilizes a text-to-speech feature. First, a patient requests the ScripTalk service when the prescription is ordered. The pharmacist then either prints the RFID-enabled label or uses adhesive to place the pre-encoded, disk-shaped RFID label on the bottom of the container.

The patient’s medication is placed on the pharmacist’s ScripTalk Station device. The built-in RFID reader captures the tag’s unique ID number, while the pharmacist programs the tag by instructing the system to write the medication information to the tag. That data can include the patient and drug names, along with dosage, instructions, warnings, doctor name, prescription and expiration date. The Scriptability software can be integrated with most pharmacy software systems, so that data in a pharmacy’s own software can be directly written to the tag and then be verified using the Scriptalk reader.

Each patient has his or her own ScripTalk station at home, which is battery-powered and has no connection to the Internet or a power source. It can be mounted on a countertop or on a wall. The station is designed simply to audibly read what is written on the label when a user places a tagged bottle within read range and presses the device’s button.

Since the VA adopted the solution, all blind or visually impaired veterans have had access to the ScripTalk talking prescription system via a VA pharmacy. Each pharmacy uses a ScripTalk station with a built-in RFID reader, as well as an En-Vision RFID printer to print and encode pharmacy labels. Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies, on the other hand, apply the pre-encoded RFID label to the bottom of each medication destined for a ScripTalk-using patient. In that way, the ScripTalk printer is not required.

While the solution has been available with RFID for more than a decade, Raistrick notes, “It’s really been catching traction over the last three or four years.” He says the VA led the way in adoption, but other pharmacies have been deploying it more recently. The company offers the system to be read-only with the dedicated reading device, rather than for an NFC-enabled smartphone. “Most individuals are more appreciative of having the device,” Raistrick says, than of having to download an app and use their phone to hear the prescription information.

Pharmacies are offering the solution at no cost to patients, enabling them to order the read stations through En-Vision’s Pharmacy Freedom Program. In most cases, En-Vision ships the ScripTalk station directly to each patient. “In that way,” he states, “the pharmacy doesn’t have to worry about the readers. They are only focused on programming the label.” En-Vision then charges the pharmacy a fee for the station, software and labels.

En-Vision designed and manufactures the stations, including the RFID reader and specialized labels. To date, Raistrick says, 20,000 individuals are using Scriptalk, as are more than 7,000 pharmacies—250 of which are VA pharmacies. Between 3 and 5 percent of patients have trouble reading the print on labels, he adds, most of whom are elderly.

The growing interest in the solution by pharmacies comes as some states are legislating the accessibility of prescription labels for those with disabilities. For pharmacies, the system is available either as a one-time purchase or as a lease agreement. The benefit for them, Raistrick says, is that “they’re getting happy customers coming back every month,” and they can also be assured of complying with future regulations.

The system can be used by those who have other disabilities beyond blindness, Raistrick says, such as dyslexia or illiteracy. In the future, it could also translate text into other languages for those who don’t speak English. En-Vision offers a large print foldout label as well, along with QR codes and braille to offer lower-cost alternatives.

Regarding the Walmart and Sam’s Club’s announcement in July, Raistrick says, “It’s a nice moment when a corporation that large takes the lead in providing free-of-charge accessible labels.” Amanda Tolson, En-Vision America’s director of sales, adds, “This is the first time that Walmart and Sam’s Club have come out publicly and said ‘We are making this available to anybody who asks for it.'”