How RFID Technology is Revolutionising Healthcare Operational Logistics & Supply Chains

Author : Teppei Miura, Murata ID Solutions

03 September 2023

Figure 1: RFID readers can register and verify goods at every point in the supply chain
Figure 1: RFID readers can register and verify goods at every point in the supply chain

The health sector is under huge pressure - dealing with ever greater patient numbers, budget limitations and staff shortages. With a multitude of different assets being moved around hospital campuses daily, plus detailed patient records needing to continuously be referred to, keeping up to date with everything can be highly problematic.

In time-critical situations, relevant equipment, medication and blood reserves must be obtained quickly - and this is calling for better logistics technology.

Conventional asset management and logistical methods haven’t kept pace with the ramp-up of hospital sizes, patient volumes, or the amounts of items needing to be handled. Time and human resource allocation is making them impractical. 

Also, with the presence of counterfeit pharmaceutical goods becoming commonplace, manufacturers need to safeguard supply chains from infiltration of poor quality ‘fake’ products. These are likely to be ineffectual at treating the medical conditions they are intended for and may even be harmful to patients using them. 

For the reasons just outlined, adoption of more advanced approaches, based on RFID, are gaining popularity. Insight Analytic expects a 15.4% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the healthcare-related RFID market between now and 2030, with it having an annual worth above $17 billion by the end of that period. The following sections briefly look at some of the benefits that can be derived.

Improved inventory management
Accurate real-time tracking will allow instrumentation to be quickly located during emergencies, thereby shortening response times. It will also prevent the potential loss or pilfering of such equipment - so healthcare providers don’t have to make further financial outlay on replacing lost/stolen items.
Managing expiration dates 
Antivirals, vaccines and consumable pieces of equipment (such as probes, catheters, etc.) will only have certain advised periods over which they are applicable. Usage outside of these, may lead to the healthcare provider being sued for negligence. Therefore, having a way of checking their validity is of paramount importance. Also, being able to get data on their usage history (when they were last sterilised, etc.) will be invaluable.

Ensuring pharmaceutical integrity 
World Health Organisation (WHO) studies show that around 10% of medical products in circulation in lower/middle income countries, mainly those situated in Latin America and Africa, are falsified or substandard - thus representing a serious danger to the population there. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to die annually because of this.    

Streamlining workflows 
Through linking pharmaceuticals, equipment and planned procedures to individual patients, further advantages can be brought about. The prospect of treatment errors occurring, or the mis-administering of medication, can be mitigated. 

Insufficiencies of current technology
QR codes offer some of the properties needed for healthcare logistics, but still have many shortfalls. Several of these relate to them relying on optically-based readers with line-of-sight arrangements. Consequently, marks/stains on labels may hinder data retrieval. The labels must also be large enough to allow scanning (causing difficulties with certain smaller items) and they must be on the exterior (or on the product packaging). They have to be scanned one at a time, without scope for bulk reading. There are security drawbacks too. If the QR code can only be placed on a package, this leaves opportunity for counterfeiting -with fake products being put inside authentic packaging.      
Embracing RFID
RFID is better at addressing healthcare’s numerous logistical challenges - enabling intuitive handling of different assets, alongside assured supply chain integrity. Not only is this more efficient than QR code arrangements, but it also has greater adaptability and scalability. RFID tags are distinguished by unique serial identifiers that cannot be duplicated and are easy to place on or integrate into products. They may be hidden (making them difficult for counterfeiters to find), but still remain fully operational. It is straightforward to add new data or make modifications to existing data throughout these tags’ lifecycles. Finally, large numbers of items can be scanned simultaneously.

Scanners in a hospital’s halls/doorways will help determine where assets, patients and staff are at any particular time. Using tags in patient’s wristbands, clinical professionals can easily access stored information. RFID also has considerable worth in ‘cold chain’ tracking - so as to ascertain if products (such as vaccines) which need to be stored in refrigeration units have been constantly kept at recommended temperatures.    

Figure 2: Small embeddable RFID micro tags for the serialisation of syringes, vials and cartridges
Figure 2: Small embeddable RFID micro tags for the serialisation of syringes, vials and cartridges

As defined by the ISO/IEC 18000-63 standard, RFID tags leveraging the EPC UHF Gen2 air interface protocol (which covers the 860MHz to 960MHz frequency range) are now seeing widespread medical sector deployment. There is the capacity to identify 1,000 tags within a 10m radius in just 1s.

Hospitals and leading pharmaceutical companies are already gaining advantages from use of RFID technology for track and trace, asset management, inventory accuracy, brand protection and cold chain management. Murata’s turnkey IoT and RFID solutions, spanning consultancy, software and hardware aspects, is helping them to collect raw data and turn it into indispensable logistical insights. 
Case study example 
Bayer SpA, the Italian division of Bayer AG, has leveraged Murata’s RFID technology to track boxes of pharmaceutical products and the pallets used to ship them. The RFID solution has helped Bayer to gain real-time visibility over its distribution processes - enabling the company to optimise customer service and improve asset tracking, as well as enhancing its product security and accelerating its responsiveness to unprecedented threats.

Murata’s RFID solution is built around the id-Bridge web-based platform and accompanying middleware. The result is end-to-end system management - encompassing the acquisition, aggregation and interpretation of data from tagged assets. 

Murata RFID tags are highly effective in a modern healthcare context, particularly for tracking pharmaceuticals and sample vials. Bulk reading of over 400 units/minute is enabled, thereby significantly boosting throughput figures. The ISO18000-63-compliant LXMSJZNCMH-225 RFID modules each have a RAIN RFID tag embedded into a ceramic substrate. Individual modules feature a controller, memory and analogue front-end (AFE). The 1.2mm x 1.2mm x 0.55mm form factor facilitates integration into the smallest of end-products. Data is transferred across the 865MHz to 928MHz frequency band, with a 10mm read range supported.

Measuring 6.0mm x 2.0mm x 2.3mm, Murata’s LXTBKZMCMG-010 RFID modules are optimised for surgical tool usage. These compact units have 96-bit read-only tag identifier memories. Also transmitting in the 865MHz to 928MHz band, they use the metal surfaces to which they are attached for augmenting their overall read range (acting as booster antennas to attain 1.5m distances).

RFID implementation will bring dramatic savings to healthcare providers’ day-to-day running costs, with asset movements being accurately traced and activities better executed. It will, likewise, enable pharmaceutical manufacturers to combat the threats posed by counterfeiters, protecting revenues and their brand reputation. Uptake of this technology in all spheres of medical endeavour is thus unquestionable.     

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