Technology has a huge role to play in the field of supply chain logistics, particularly in the supply chain of sensitive and perishable medical goods. Such goods are expensive and need very specific tracking mechanisms.
If they are not adequately cared for, these goods will spoil at an enormous cost to suppliers. A key element here is temperature tracking. Slight changes in temperature can destroy certain medical goods, particularly those containing biological organisms.
The following are three ways that technology is helping to track these types of goods so they get to their destination intact and fit for purpose. In a Covid-19 era of limited vaccines and test kits, the importance of real-time tracking is not to be underestimated.
The future of medical goods tracking is certain to heavily feature both Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology. These currently are used on a small scale that is set to increase as they become more commercially viable.
RFID and IoT will be used together to enable traceability and environmental monitoring of medical inventory including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, nano-products, and other materials with limited shelf lives.
With this technology, information is sent via radio waves in ‘tags.’ There are both active and passive tags. Active tags have their own energy sources while passive tags require an external energy source. For tracking medical inventory, it makes more sense to use passive RFID tags as they are cheap, flexible, and smaller in comparison to active tags. The main downside of passive tags is the potential interference from liquids and metals.
Using RFID, medical inventory can be tagged with a range of up to 20 meters, depending on the type. The costs of this technology are coming down, and it has become utilized more frequently as a means to track sensitive goods. A primary issue would be the resolution of different standards and rules surrounding RFID.
In Europe, the acceptable frequency range is 865 – 868 MHz as set by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). In the USA, it is 902 – 928 MHz as set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Other countries have adopted different standards.
Data from RFID tags can be translated into meaningful, actionable steps with the internet of things (IoT) devices. Sensors play a key role in recording IoT data and tracking medical data, and sensors of various kinds will communicate with one another. IoT also allows for enhanced reporting and visualization capabilities, such as the real-time location of multiple items across the globe.
It also provides key environmental information. For instance, if there is a fire or catastrophe in a given area, the information is quickly sent either through a sensor or an RFID reader. A warehouse or storage area might be subject to a slight increase in temperature. Before the medical goods arrive at the location, the problem could be rectified.
The applications for IoT technology are endless and include automation. If medical goods do perish, an immediate order can be sent to produce more of them, or to distribute them from a different location. Predictive techniques can also be used to ensure that medical goods are in adequate supply in a given geographical location, and expiration dates can be closely monitored.
Electronic Shipping Indicators (ESI) are recommended by the World Health Organization as a means of tracking vaccines and ‘cold-chain’ equipment. This is because ESIs are excellent for recording temperature changes. Vaccines often have very specific temperature ranges to maintain their efficacy, and these ranges are unique to every vaccine. According to the World Health Organization:
“All vaccines can be stored at positive temperatures (between +2 °C and +8 °C). However, only some vaccines can be stored at negative temperatures (between -15 °C and -25 °C)”
‘Cold chain equipment’ mainly refers to refrigerators and these need to be closely monitored. If they fail or malfunction, all the vaccines and medical goods within them will perish.
ESIs are useful for a period of about 20 days. If there is a temperature fluctuation beyond a certain range, an alert is triggered. These are similar to chemical indicators and are equally popular. They are a simple but effective tool for temperature monitoring of sensitive medical inventory. The main drawback is that they are only good for a single-use and have a very specific feature set. They track the temperature and little else.
A Quick Response (QR) code is a simple, easy, affordable, and effective data logging tool that has a wide range of uses. It has already proven extremely useful during the Covid-19 pandemic. No skill is required and neither is specialized software.
A simple code allows for an easy scan using a smartphone or multiple other devices. The camera scans the code and uploads it to the cloud for processing and tracking.
Again, QR scanners have a huge role in the supply chain of sensitive medical equipment, mainly for temperature monitoring. A QR code can even contain multiple pieces of information. These are known as e-ink dynamic QR codes.
QR codes are simple yet effective. But for sophisticated production environments, higher quality data loggers might be needed that can proactively monitor sensitive data. According to Dickson Data, data monitoring technology can help organizations to easily meet compliance standards.
It’s clear that data loggers are critical to tracking medical inventory. Sensors, RFIDs, and IoT technology already play a role–and will soon play a much larger role – in supply chain logistics so that goods are kept intact for distribution.
Moreover, such data loggers can help with environmental tracking. Appropriate environmental conditions where medical inventory is to be stored, shipped, or distributed are paramount. This includes the health status of the surrounding population, temperature, and existing medical inventory. This will help with accurate and safe distribution and ensure that the goods are intelligently placed for use, as opposed to having them expire without being used for their intended purposes.
The sophistication of tracking and monitoring technology is increasing while the costs are decreasing. The end result will be a more efficient system of transfer for sensitive and perishable medical goods.