Continual improvement in patient care is the main priority for every organisation across the healthcare industry. With Matthews involved with GS1’s Supply Chain Weeks — both the GS1 Healthcare Supply Chain update in Melbourne this week and next week’s GS1 Healthcare User Group in Sydney — we thought it timely to look at leading-edge uses of coding, labelling and vision technologies in healthcare.
Traceability and trackability are constantly improvingin healthcare and emerging technologies are improving accuracy as well as making it easier. And that’s spread right across the industry — in tracking and tracing medical equipment, genuine medicines and people.
The industry’s intense focus to improve the accuracy and efficiency of patient care, as well as stop counterfeit products, also includes the associated health sectors (such as chiropractic and osteopath), and complementary medicines (such as homeopathy) — these are considered a “subset” of the healthcare “service” sector (which includes hospitals and the like).
Among the biggest technology trends in healthcare traceability are:
- Vision inspection: for both automated quality assurance and quality control
- 2D Coding: Using technologies like laser for permanent marks
- RFID: for authenticity and to track items
- UV ink: to create identification marks usually for counterfeit protection
Let’s look at just a few aspects in this vast sphere, both from the technology viewpoint and the area…
This technology is not new to healthcare in any capacity — indeed the healthcare sector was probably one of the first adopters. What has changed though is the technology’s capability: it can now do so much more than before.
Vision is currently used for checking moulded vials, and other items used to package medicines, for damage, defects, consistent shape and so on. Potentially, vision technology can be used to check for contamination in the liquid, or, depending on the colour, to check the correct medicine is inside.
Another interesting application is with companies that supply kit instruments for certain operations. Once the kits are returned after the procedure, the supplier needs to know what to actually charge according to which items have been used — whether that’s instruments or consumables.
There are many ways this can be done. One is to have an image of both the supplied and returned kits; automated comparison can then identify what’s been used.
In the vast majority of cases, these checking processes are done manually; however, some companies are beginning to automate them.
Alternatively, instruments fitted with RFID tags can be scanned in and out. The other benefit of such before-and-after comparisons — whether using vision or RFID — is making sure that instruments are not left inside the patient.
Pharmaceutical medicines always have a batch code and a date code; however manufacturers are beginning to put on 2D codes as well. These small, machine-readable codes include extra information on the product that the client doesn’t need to see (or could confuse them, or maybe even the manufacturer doesn’t want the client to see), but will give further trackability if any issues arise later. These 2D codes could include the production line a product was produced on, or the manufacturing date if just a human-readable use-by date is sufficient for the client.
These can be printed/ marked with multiple different technology options including laser marking, inkjet with UV inks, Thermal inkjet (TIJ) technology among others.
As a technology, RFID has a range of benefits. Using just a little hand scanner the size of a phone, information about stock on a shelf can be collected in a heartbeat, reducing stocktake from hours to minutes. In the UK and USA particularly, RFID chips are being used in cartons of pharmaceuticals (so secondary, rather than primary packaging) as an anti-theft strategy.
Once RFID can be used for more than one purpose, it becomes a much more viable technology for a company to use. A great aspect about RFID is the ability to encode extra information onto the chip without taking up extra space on the pack, as would a barcode or other printed information.
In the past, continuous inkjet (CIJ) has been used in different circumstances, sometimes with UV ink. For the most part, this appears clear on packet surfaces, but when under the right conditions (such as a UV light at the pharmacy or upon importation), the code they can be tested and revealed to guarantee it’s genuine.
The latest move has been to use UV inks with QR codes, because these can hold a lot of information, or with 2D codes — although this tends to be more cartons or equipment based than on the primary coding. (You may find this article on different codes, including QR codes, interesting, as well as this piece on 2D codes for cartons.)
Counterfeits are a huge problem for pharmaceutical medicines. While the issue is not as prevalent in Australia as other parts of the world, it poses a huge danger to patients taking medication that is not what it purports to be and damages manufacturer’s brands as well as company profits. Another strategy that supports better track & trace is individual or usage related SKU packaging which ensures that the medicine or syringe for example remains in its original packaging until it reaches the end consumer who can have the ability to validate the authenticity.
Having all these capabilities is important for Australian pharmaceutical manufacturers in light of the Free Trade agreement (FTA) with China. We’re a high-technology country, and while much pharmaceutical manufacture has moved offshore, contract manufacturers fill an important role locally for the original brand owners, so this remains an important industry for Australian export. The FTA is yet to be ratified, but Australia took the time to ensure it was included as part of the agreement because of this industry’s importance to our economy.
Overall, the three tracking and traceability technologies that stand out the most to date in healthcare are vision, laser and thermal inkjet offering a very strong quality control element across the entire industry. To find out more about technologies in healthcare, click here.