Supporting the wellbeing of the healthcare supply chain

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It's a hospital's worst nightmare. A patient is admitted, goes onto the ward and has samples taken for testing, but there is a mix-up in patient records that are transferred between the ward and the off-site laboratory. The wrong results are given to the wrong patient and a frightening chain of events begins. Add to this dilemma, the possibility of counterfeit drugs being unknowingly administered to the same patient, and the healthcare supply chain looks highly ineffective. But it's not all doom and gloom. New developments in labelling technologies are addressing these problems, head on.

Safe and secure
The manual processes most commonly used in UK hospitals for patient records and monitoring are fraught with the potential for error. Reliably identifying patients and matching sample results to the correct patient is vital. With manual paper systems prone to error, the healthcare industry has been searching for a more reliable and accurate means of dealing with patient processes. The recent introduction of bar coding systems at a number of trial hospitals across the UK is proving that such a solution exists.

At Poole Hospital, doctors have been trialling bar coded wristbands that are printed using a hand held bar code printer. Each wristband includes information such as the patient's name, sex, registration number and any information pertinent to the patient's hospital stay. Nursing staff previously used hand-written wristbands, which could be, at worst, completely illegible. By using the bar code wristband, patient data can be scanned using only one step. And, with this technology, it is also possible to share test results throughout other areas of the hospital. Updating a patient file at the bedside or ensuring that the right medicines are being administered is easy to do with portable bar code label printers that can communicate with a hospital's central IT system without the need for cables.

The healthcare industry is, to a certain extent, playing catch-up on the development of its supply chain when compared to other industries, but it is certainly waking up to the benefits of new technologies.

In the longer-term, there are plans to extend the use of bar codes into other areas of the hospital. Printed bar coded wristbands are already being used in wards for the elderly, where patients can become confused when in hospital. The bands make it easier to recognise the patient's name and other relevant information to prevent any further confusion for the patient, and there are plans to extend this to other wards as standard practice.

Fixing the break in the supply chain
In many other sectors, such as the electronics and grocery industries, labelling technologies have been extensively implemented to enhance supply chain efficiency. The healthcare industry has been somewhat slower in adopting these labelling technologies which could, in effect develop its entire supply chain, from drugs management through to bedside patient care. Earlier this year, the Pharmaceutical Industry Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Group, announced that it was investigating a number of general areas where RFID could be implemented in its own supply chains. It agreed to focus on three key areas, which had previously proved difficult to address:

Combating the growth of counterfeit drugsRFID can, for example, provide assurance that the ID on the bottle has not been forged, therefore protecting the integrity of the supply chain overall
Handling reverse logisticswhere shipments are sent back to the manufacturer either due to incorrect items being issued or simply being out of date
Improving the overall efficiency of receiving goods, ensuring that the right products have been delivered.

 By implementing labelling technologies, such as bar coding and RFID, the healthcare market will be able to administer a more up-to-date and highly efficient system

In the longer-term, if these and other areas are addressed with RFID, then general speed and accuracy, distribution and payment methods, can only have a positive effect on the overall supply chain. Patients, for example, can be tracked in much the same way as any product in the supply chain. RFID hospital bracelets will allow the hospital to keep track of patient location, and for patients whose movements must be restricted, alerts can be sounded if they wander too far.

Stemming the cash flow
Having a more up-to-date and efficient supply chain throughout the healthcare industry, mirroring those implemented throughout other industries, will naturally lead to cost savings. In the case of nursing staff, for example, who are on the front line of patient relations on the ward, the introduction of bar code wristbands would save them significant time and therefore cost, in updating patient information; work they would normally do manually.

In general terms throughout the industry, cost-savings will evolve from more effective inventory management, product identification and management, distribution and general logistics. In addition, more effective means of sharing information, between suppliers and hospitals or between wards and laboratories, would free up more resources, both in terms of time and money. True healthcare then becomes the real focus for the industry as a whole.

What next?
The healthcare industry is, to a certain extent, playing catch-up on the development of its supply chain when compared to other industries, but it is certainly waking up to the benefits of new technologies. There is already an increase in the number of wireless networks in hospitals, as the industry cottons on to the additional labelling solutions that can be realised through their application. For example, most test samples are still labelled with batch printed labels but a wireless network opens up the potential for bedside labelling of samples and medication, eliminating the potential for error from mis-labelling.

By implementing labelling technologies, such as bar coding and RFID, the healthcare market will be able to administer a more up-to-date and highly efficient system in patient care, administration, the marking and labelling of medical products, and the integrity of the pharmaceutical supply chain. The implications of these technological developments are significant. We are already starting to see a wider implementation of these technologies across the UK and it is only a matter of time before they extend further, assuring the wellbeing of the healthcare supply chain itself.

Aileen McHugh is vertical marketing manager, healthcare, at Zebra Technologies Europe Ltd, a global leader in delivering on-demand printing solutions for business improvement. McHugh has ten years experience in the Auto ID industry, working on a number of global healthcare initiatives.

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