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Can technology really build trust in pharmaceutical supply chains?
The pharmaceutical supply chain has a trust problem right now, and many are wondering who’s to blame. After reviewing the findings of Zebra’s latest Pharmaceutical Vision Study, I strongly believe it’s a cumulative issue and not any single entity’s responsibility. People have become more attentive to their health during the Covid-19 pandemic and more inquisitive about how vaccines, medications and other therapeutics are brought to market.
Eight-in-10 patients surveyed feel it is either somewhat or very important to know how their drugs are manufactured, handled, transported and stored, with equal interest expressed in the sustainability of product sources. Just as many say it’s important to understand the drug’s origin and its ingredients. But they want the information to come straight from the manufacturer. In other words, the source matters.
But there are two things that matter more:
Yet, many pharmaceutical supply chain entities, including logistics partners, don’t have this information themselves. There isn’t a universal system to track forward-moving goods or trace back the source of compromising incidents, much less flow information about a drug or treatment’s journey to patients.
My hope is that the forthcoming enforcement of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) in 2023 will help move the industry toward new track-and-trace best practices capable of providing real-time insights and full supply chain transparency. However, I’m concerned the fear of the “unknown” around radio frequency identification (RFID) and other advanced track-and-trace technologies may drive companies to “play it safe.” They may try to piecemeal together a barcode-based system capable of meeting serialization and case-to-pallet aggregation requirements. But barcodes can’t fully forge trust in the quality and safety of pharmaceuticals. If they could, the feedback from our study would have been very different.
Barcode scanners and label printers don’t strongly support batch-level track and trace during distribution. No one is going to break down a pallet at every stop to confirm each barcoded item is still in its original condition and place. And temperature-sensing tools, though effective at monitoring the performance of the cold chain, can’t report on every key performance indicator used to build confidence in the authenticity or quality of pharmaceuticals.
By layering RFID on top of barcode and temperature sensing solutions, companies—and patients—can instantly access a wealth of information about every drug’s origin and journey, including where they have been and who handled them. RFID reads can occur automatically at dock doors or in a split second with the quick pull of the trigger on a handheld RFID reader. In fact, passive RFID has proven to deliver 100% read accuracy on pallets of dry tablets, liquid injectables, and foil blister packs in real-world settings—with a dock door RFID portal, no less.
The other big benefit of RFID is the real-time view of current stock levels and locations. Three-quarters of patients worry that drugs won’t be available when they need them, and 40% of decision-makers admit it’s a challenge to ensure the right medicines are delivered to patients in time and in full. Knowing when to take fast action to replenish or reroute in-demand drugs can go a long way to restoring trust in the supply chain.
As the DSCSA compliance deadline approaches, the pharma industry has an opportunity to rethink its relationship with technology—and how new technologies such as RFID can fortify trust in long-term relationships. Once patients can see how drugs are made, and everyone can follow their journey through the last mile in a play-by-play manner, today’s fears can be allayed, as we’ll be able to see that the supply chain can in fact be trusted to protect patients’ health and safety.
About the Author
John Wirthlin is Industry Principal, Manufacturing, Transportation, and Logistics, Zebra Technologies.