We’re all aware that counterfeit drugs – medicines that are falsely labelled – are a growing global problem. They threaten patient health and cost European countries an estimated €1.4bn a year.
Such drugs are certainly a mixed bag. They may have the correct ingredients but in the wrong dosage, or lack any active ingredients, or contain impurities or toxic stuff. They’re introduced into the healthcare supply chain, where they end up in pharmacies, or are sold directly to consumers over the web. The fraud isn’t confined to drugs: I’m sure we all remember the horrific case of the breast implants made from industrial, rather than medical, silicone.
Theft of drugs and medical equipment from hospitals is also a problem across Europe. Data’s hard to come by, but official figures showing that in Scotland in 2010, £1.13m worth of NHS hospital equipment went missing, give an idea of the scale.
At a time when health services are creaking under the pressure of growing demand and tighter budgets we need to get a grip on these issues.
The good news is that the problems are easily addressed through two simple technologies: barcodes and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Barcodes will become much more widespread once the European Union’s Falsified Medicines Directive comes into force in 2017. The directive requires every pack of medicines to have a barcode printed on it, which will then be checked into a database by the manufacturer and checked out when dispensed by a pharmacy.
Each barcode will include a unique product number and information on the date and country of manufacture and the batch details. The data is read by a handheld scanner and makes it much easier to identify the counterfeit drugs. As well as spotting counterfeit products scanning drugs as they arrive and are dispensed by pharmacies provides a continuous and accurate inventory of stock. This will help to prevent overbuying and better control budgets. And, with European countries looking at the US’ plans to introduce similar legislation, called Unique Device Identification (UDI), to identify and trace medical equipment, the use of barcodes could soon be extended. For me this is a no brainer as the technology could have prevented the issue with the breast implants. What’s more, it makes it easier to trace patients whose medical devices may turn out to be faulty.
RFID also has a vital role to play in healthcare. RFID tags can hold more data than barcodes, and, are read both by fixed RFID readers (installed across premises) and handheld scanners. Anything can have an RFID label attached to it – such as people, patients, equipment and more – and it’s location can be viewed, and traced, on a map of the clinic. This visibility over valuable equipment means that hospitals can prevent theft and will not need to waste budget on replacing mislaid items.
It gets even better. Because all the barcode and RFID data is stored in a database, it’s possible to analyse exactly how much stock is being delivered, where it’s being used and how quickly it’s – allowing you to keep track of medicines and equipment and to plan more effectively in future.
So barcodes and RFID tags have multiple benefits: they slash wastage, reduce the incidence of theft and of counterfeit drugs entering the supply chain and, by making data on drug effectiveness visible, they can improve clinical practice and patient outcomes.