In supply chain, anti-counterfeit initiatives requiring that medicines be serialized at the saleable-item level have driven significant investment in track and trace. Much of that investment takes place on the packaging line itself, where upgrades are needed to support inline printing and verification of 2-D bar codes. Tracking and tracing of these millions of serialized products, aggregated into cases, shippers, and pallets, enables the pharmaceutical supply chain, from the manufacturer through the wholesaler to the dispenser, to integrate the movement of materials at the item level with business events like stock transfers, sales fulfillment, advance ship notifications, etc.
In parallel, there is a wider digitization move afoot, most notably in the domain of sensor extensions to the very powerful computers in our pockets: our mobile phones. Today we’re using our smartphone cameras to scan the 2-D bar codes on pharmaceutical packaging to ensure the medicine is authentic. This happens almost by magic, as the package’s serial number is deciphered from the camera’s scan and sent through multiple systems and interfaces to compare with the manufacturer’s list of serial numbers.
The key role of the smartphone
What else can the smartphone do in the hands of the patient, the endpoint of the medicine’s supply chain? Sensing (of light) with the onboard camera is now taken for granted, as is the phone’s electronic sensing capability to power NFC (near-field communications) for payments and receive the GPS coordinates that help us navigate. But in healthcare, there are more specialized sensors that we can connect to our phones and that may, one day, even be onboard as standard functionalities. Some examples:
- Replace your standard cellphone case with one containing embedded sensors that monitor heart rate to create a real-time mobile ECG that has already been shown to diagnose the onset of heart attack. All for less than US$100.
- Create a low-cost mobile ultrasound scanner by downloading the relevant app, connecting the USB ultrasound transducer, and scanning.
- Expand the microphone’s role. There are specialized plug-in mics available today that record heart and lung sounds, providing traditional stethoscope capabilities. On the horizon, and probably nearer than we think, is enhancement of the onboard microphone with sensors that can detect chemical substances carried on our breath. The smell of a patient’s breath has, for millennia, provided early diagnosis for conditions like diabetes, certain cancers, and even multiple sclerosis. Sensors can detect organic compounds carried on the breath at levels far below the human nose’s range. This can lead not only to earlier disease detection, but also to identifying a wider range of medical conditions.
The smartphone, from authentication of medicines to self-diagnostics
Today, high-speed inline bar code label printing allows us to authenticate medicines with our smartphones. Soon, that same smartphone will help us diagnose the conditions those medicines treat, through sensor technology or by entering symptoms into an artificial intelligence engine, which can fast-track a diagnosis based on billions of data points collected from thousands of test consultations. All in real time and at significantly reduced cost. Exciting times are already here, and digital transformation is happening by the moment. Is your organization ready?