Despite the reluctance of drug manufacturers to incorporate RFID in their packaging operations, RFID guru Peter Harrop, chairman of the consultancy IDTechEx, has told In-PharmaTechnologist.com that he believes the benefits in patience compliance, fighting counterfeits and managing the supply chain will quickly prevail over the technology's costs.
"The technology has already taken off for anti-counterfeiting in the US with about 30m RFID tags at item level, in small bottles of pills for example, expected by end of 2006 - Viagra and Trizivir are already tagged in the US," he says.
"There is obviously huge potential as there are 10bn to 30bn yearly of prescription drugs worldwide."
RFID uptake is also fueled by patient compliance in monitoring RFID-enabled blisterpacks; there are 30,000 tags in a current US National Institute of Health (NIH) drug trial of azithromycin and a Novartis trial.
These tags record which pill was taken when, the so-called smart packaging, and give the pack a unique electronic ID.
Billions of them will be made every year when they are cheap enough to be used at home, something that Harrop expects in 10 to 15 years.
In Europe, Stora Enso are item level tagging drugs for Orion Pharma, and the British National Health Service (NHS) has used RFID to tag medical instruments in hospitals.
The primary impediments to the rollout of RFID in healthcare are limited budgets, inertia, lack of education, high cost of many RFID systems, limited number of companies providing systems integration, or "one stop shopping," and lack of trials and proven business cases for some types of application.
"There is a difficulty or reluctance by big pharma to calculate the true cost of counterfeiting, drug theft and poor supply chain management, slow stocktaking by pharmacies, and other problems tackled by RFID," he said.
"Which department pays?"
Barcodes are cheaper but have to be read one at a time, usually with humans involved, whereas RFID systems can count one thousand in the blink of an eye with no humans involved.
Orientation, damage and obscuration are much less of a problem with RFID and it is more secure, Harrop stresses.
The technology most favoured by drug companies at the moment is high frequency (HF) RFID, despite ultra high frequency (UHF) RFID being cheaper.
Companies find HF more tolerant of metal and water, and, most importantly, small enough to fit on the smallest drug packages.
Using silicon chips, equivalent item level tags are about one cent more expensive at HF, but if some continue to succeed in obtaining royalties under patents for UHF RFID and HF gets the cost-reduction attention paid to UHF, then that price difference may vanish, Harrop claims.
"HF labels are adopted first for item level and drug compliance monitoring because they give guaranteed 99.95 per cent good reads and no ghost reads but Wal-Mart insists on UHF because it already uses this frequency for pallets and cases," he said.
"A third option touted by many suppliers but unproven in volume is 'Near Field' UHF which may give label cost lower than HF and adequate performance, the jury is out on that one."
Hissop fears there is a danger of ending up with a similar situation as with anti-theft tags, three incompatible types to go on the same items depending on the drug outlet.
Decisions are urgently needed but only the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is showing real leadership among the regulators and even it has not finally decided, Hissop warns.