Future pharma: What near field communication (NFC) means for pharma

*John Hendel outlines how **near field communication (NFC) technology can enhance information sharing, improve inventory tracking, and help reduce adverse drug reactions*



John Hendel outlines how near field communication (NFC) technology can enhance information sharing, improve inventory tracking, and help reduce adverse drug reactions

Technology has a way of gradually compressing many devices into one.

The smartphone put the Flip camera out of business by offering video capabilities, while tablets are increasingly relegating laptops to the home and office environments by offering word processing.

The same kind of technological compression may soon happen to credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards, ID cards, and morethanks to near field communication (NFC), a way for mobile devices to wirelessly interact with other devices and physical objects within a range of a few centimeters.

NFC has the potential to transform many types of daily transactions and could well change the way the pharmaceutical industry does business.

NFC is also called the Internet of things since it connects physical objects the way the Internet connects bit of digitized information.

Physical objects connected to an NFC system are tagged so they respond to wireless signals.

Imagine youre at the sales counter ready to pay for a purchase. Forget the credit or debit card. Just wave your cell phone in front of the reader and, bingo, youve paid.

Or maybe youre at the office and need to know if a meeting room is free. Wave your phone and the schedule appears on the screen.

Near field communication is simply a new medium to interact with things, says Antonio Jara, a researcher at Spains University of Murcia who has worked with NFC and a related technology, radio-frequency identification (RFID), since around 2008.

Jara is researching the healthcare applications for such tagging, which could lead to the development of intelligent beds capable of tracking patient status and movements, medication adherence, and other relevant information that could, in turn, help increase efficiency, reduce human error, and cut costs.

NFC in pharma

Over the past five to ten years, NFC has become a near-reality for many companies.

Were starting to see this take off, says Debbie Arnold, interim director of the non-profit Near Field Communication Forum (NFCF) and formerly with Visa. The credit and debit card industry has been among the early adopters of NFC.

The NFCF was formed in 2004 and currently has 140 members, including AT&T, American Express, RIM, Intel, and Google. It advocates for standards-based NFC specifications and further developing the technologys tools and infrastructure.

NFC is often associated just with mobile phones, Arnold explains, but it can be used with any mobile device. And it offers interesting potential for pharma.

Although Arnold comes from a financial rather than a pharmaceutical background, she imagines multiple pharmaceutical applications, such as NFC-enabled systems to assist the visually impaired locate objects and navigate spaces or help the elderly keep track of their medications.

Unlike in the retail environment, though, pharmas NFC applications will need to facilitate two-way information exchange so users can both send and receive data.

Several companies have carried out trial RFID and NFC projects, but there has not yet been a wide-scale deployment of the technology.

Still, a recent European Commission report noted that 2.8 billion RFID tags are sold globally every year and that industry estimates that there could be up to 50 billion connected electronic devices by 2020more than enough for an Internet of things to go live.

NFC and prescription payments

In 2008, Americans paid $234.1 billion for drugs, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services, a number expected to reach $450 billion by 2019.

NFC can simplify these kinds of consumer transactions, potentially making the entire process of prescribing medications and filling prescriptions more efficient.

One concern, of course, is security.

Different levels of security will exist for different levels of transaction sensitivity, Arnold suggests, with certain NFC exchanges being password protected.

At the application, at the vendors, thats where theyre going to add the security, Arnold says.

Jara doubts security concerns will affect the technologys progress; indeed, coming iPad models and Googles new smartphone, the Google Nexus S, are already geared for NFC.

Beyond exchanging money, however, comes the added value of tracking inventory.

NFC allows businesses to track the physical movement of medication, information, and personnel in real time.

A homecare company, for example, would know automatically when a nurse checks in on a patient because the nurse could use his NFC-enabled phone to update his location.

A sales rep in conversation with a customer could use her phone or tablet to call up additional product information.

Purdue Pharma has been using RFID to track inventories of drugs like OxyContin for the past five years, increasing efficiency and helping to combat counterfeiting.

NFCs role in preventing adverse drug reactions

One of the pharmaceutical industrys major challenges is correctly matching patients with medications.

A 2001 Institute of Medicine report found that 7,000 deaths occur every year due to adverse drug reactions (ADRs), many of which may be avoidable with the right detection and care.

The US Food and Drug Administration refers to ADRs as a significant public health problem that is, for the most part, preventable.

Preventing ADRs is complex. Different drugs interact in complex ways, and patients individual allergies can contribute to unexpected reactions.

The FDA emphasizes that these incidents may mean longer hospital stays, higher overall healthcare bills, and disruption among nursing homes.

In a 2010 paper, A Pharmaceutical Intelligent Information System to Detect Allergies and Adverse Drugs Reactions based on the Internet of Things, Jara and fellow researchers at the University of Murcia proposed simple solution: use NFC to check any new drug against the patients medical history and allergies before administering it.

The goal, according to the paper: to prevent ADRs by means of a pervasive interface using the latest mobile technologies.

Such a system would require a large and accurate databaseencompassing many different types of drugs, their interaction effects, and allergiesand up-to-date, accurate patient profiles.

Assuming these two elements could be successfully established, NFC would be a quick and effective way to assess the suitability of medications.

The paper also discusses how pharmacists can use NFC to preemptively discover possible adverse drug reactions before giving out the drugs. (For more on pharmacists, technology, and adherence, see Q&A: Wireless solutions for patient non-compliance and Using the web to improve patient compliance.)

More widespread application of NFC may be nearer than we think.

The European Union endorses the idea of RFID, and last year leading wireless companies supported the idea of commercial NFC payments through a new network called Isis.

Such cooperation is promising, both for the future of NFC as well as for its application in the pharmaceutical industry.

Checking a drug in the future could be as easy as checking the profile of a friend on Facebook, Jara says.

For more on pharma and technology, join the sectors other key leaders at Sales Force Effectiveness USA on May 17-19 in New Brunswick, NJ.

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