RxSafe’s Machines Use RFID to Automatically Dispense Medications

By Claire Swedberg

The company's new RxASP line incorporates HF RFID readers to identify and dispense the correct types and amounts of pharmaceuticals.

RxSafe, a provider of automated medication storage and retrieval systems for pharmacies, is offering a new line of prescription packaging machines, known as RxASP, that employ high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz passive RFID tags to avoid mistakes involving the storage or dispensing of medications in plastic pouches or packets that are provided to patients.

RxSafe was founded in 2008, in San Diego, to develop and sell systems to pharmacies that would enable a faster, more efficient and controlled method for dispensing medication. In pharmacies—either in the retail environment or at institutional pharmacies serving patients in such environments as hospitals, prisons and nursing homes—prescriptions have traditionally been filled by hand. A staff member identifies a bottle of the product needed, pours out the pills and counts them before placing them in a prescription package for an individual patient. To improve efficiency at pharmacies, as well as at large distribution centers that handle mail-order fulfillments, technology firms have been offering machines that count the pills and fill a bottle, or an individual plastic package containing several pills that a particular patient should take daily.

The RxASP 1000 contains more than 120 RFID readers, to identify as many as 1,000 tagged pill canisters store inside the machine.

RxSafe makes such equipment to enable the faster fulfillment of orders, says William Holmes, RxSafe's CEO, including medication dispensed in plastic pouches that are administered to patients at institutional settings. RxASP comes with an enclosed honeycomb of what look like mailbox slots, each containing a canister to store a specific medication type and dosage. In response to orders input into the system, the machine automatically releases a specified number of pills, places them into a strip of plastic material and seals that material to form a packet or pouch—hence, the name RxASP (automated strip packager).

Standard drug-dispensing machines without RFID have several weaknesses. An individual could put a medication in the wrong canister, which could lead to mistakes in filling orders. What's more, there is no way to be sure of the quantity of a particular medication that workers place into the machine, or the exact number of pills then dispensed to a patient, leaving a company vulnerable to employee theft or errors that could pose significant health risks for patients. The standard system can be slow as well; if a medication runs out, a worker must stop the machine's operation, open it, pull out a tray and measure out the correct number of pills to be refilled into a specific canister. RxSafe does not make such standard systems, which it considers out of date and obsolete.

The RxASP machines are designed to eliminate the need for a tray, the manual counting of pills and the need to deactivate the machine during refills, and are intended to be more secure and efficient for filling prescriptions via strip-packaging. To enable this efficiency and security, RxSafe opted to deploy RFID technology compliant with the ISO 15693 standard.

"Bar codes could be used for some level of automation," Holmes explains, and RxSafe's line of prescription storage and retrieval machines do, in fact, utilize bar-code technology to read the National Drug Code (NDC) bar codes on pharmacy stock bottles. However, the use of RFID for the RxASP canisters prevents anyone from tampering by photocopying a bar code with the intention of tricking the system. Thanks to RFID, Holmes says, the RxASP solution can also write data to the tag to block a drug from being dispensed during a recall.

The machine's canisters hold a number of different types of medication (the largest model, the RxASP 1000, can store up to 1,000 different canisters). Each comes with an RFID tag with a unique ID number encoded on it. For its RxASP machines, RxSafe is using tags from a variety of vendors, though Holmes declines to name the vendors with which his company works.

When users—such as institutional pharmacies that serve hospitals, prisons or nursing homes—acquire the machine, they input a specific drug dedicated to each canister with an RFID tag attached. The RxASP system calls for a particular medication and verifies its accuracy before allowing the canister to be filled. The storage containers of those drugs, as well as that container's RFID tag, are then linked to the canister in the machine's built-in software. The machine comes with inbound and outbound portals—locking doorways that are used to insert canisters into the machine or remove them for refilling. A DLP Design RFID1 reader is installed at each portal. A DLP RFID1 reader and antenna are also installed in a small worktable built into the machine that employees use to confirm the accuracy of a medication for a specific canister, and to then fill that canister.

When a canister needs to be refilled, the machine issues an alert on the LCD monitor positioned above the worktable. A user can then prompt the machine to release that canister through the outbound portal. He or she removes the canister and places it on the worktable's reader, which interrogates the unique ID number and forwards that information to the software. The software then determines which medication should be refilled in the canister, and displays that data on the monitor for the operator. After locating a bottle of that medication (stored in a cabinet or on a shelf, and with an RFID tag of its own), he or she places it on the reader shelf, along with the canister. The machine software confirms that the proper medication has been chosen, and the staff member can view approval on the monitor to proceed.

The employee fills the canister by simply pouring the pills into it (no counting is necessary), and then places it in the inbound portal, where another interrogator reads the canister's tag. At the same time, the canister is weighed so that the software can use that data to calculate the exact number of pills that are in the canister. That weight is linked to the RFID number and stored in the software. The machine's robotic system then moves the canister to one of the machine's storage slots, and the software links that storage location to the canister's RFID number. The machine also comes with a biometric reading system, enabling it to link the individual who filled the canister with that event.

When the user later inputs an order for the medication, the machine's robotics move the canister to its dispensing component (known as a motor base), which releases the requested quantity of pills, which then travel down a manifold inside the machine. SkyeTek RFID readers confirm that the proper medication has been retrieved (the RxASP 1000 has a total of 120 such readers). The motor base must confirm that the medication is, in fact, the correct one for that order, based on a read of the canister's RFID tag. Once that approval has been received, dispensing begins.

Meanwhile, the software not only enables specific processes, but also stores data about them as well. "Every touch, or transaction, is stored and managed," Holmes states, such as when a canister was filled, by whom, and when a specific quantity of pills was removed from the canister with each order. The software also tracks expiration dates, and the machine can "quarantine" canisters by denying access to a specific canister until the pills within it are replaced with medication that has not yet expired.

All four models of the ASP line are now being sold with the RFID functionality, the company reports. The first models were commercially released in late 2013.

Early adopters have reported to RxSafe that the RxASP system makes the fulfillment of orders more secure and faster (since the machine can continue operating as products are filled, and pills need not be counted onto a tray).