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RFID could prevent U.S. clinics from discarding millions worth of spoiled vaccines

New research from the Department of Health and Human Services suggests that healthcare providers routinely store vaccines at improper temperatures, potentially rendering them useless and placing children at risk.

Operating without enhanced technology such as RFID-enabled refrigerators and freezers, 76 percent of the clinics visited by the DHHS stored vaccines at temperatures that were either too hot or too cold. In many cases, vaccines had already expired.

These vaccines were identified by the Department of Health and Human Services as being stored at improper temperatures. Note the frost on the package. This vaccine was to be refrigerated, not frozen.

The report identified at least $800,000 worth of vaccine doses that may be ineffective, but the number could actually be well over $2 billion. That’s a primary reason why Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin is piloting RFID at one of its clinics to track and trace costly vaccines.

“I’ve seen the news report about the clinics that don’t store their vaccines properly,” says Dr. Steven Lo, who pursued the RFID pilot at one of Group Health Cooperative’s clinics. “We’re not talking about chump change here. Some of these drugs can be very expensive.

“If these vaccines aren’t being stored at the right temperature, then the manufacturer can’t guarantee their effectiveness. It’s just another benefit for an RFID system that provides excellent temperature tracking and alarm systems if necessary.”

Inspectors from the Department of Health and Human Services visited 45 healthcare providers in five states who offer free immunizations as part of the government’s Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program. The visits were conducted in April and May of 2011.

About 44,000 clinics participate in the program nationally. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services pay for the vaccines, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention distribute them. In 2010, approximately 82 million VFC vaccine doses were administered to an estimated 40 million children at a cost of $3.6 billion. It stands to reason that if 76 percent of facilities don’t store the vaccine properly, that $2.7 billion worth of vaccines might be in danger of not providing the protection that they are capable of.

This vaccine clearly shows an expiration date of December 2010. DHSS visited clinics in April and May of 2011.

In addition to the temperature abnormalities, 13 providers stored expired vaccines along with valid doses, another issue that can be cured through the use of RFID-enabled storage systems. The report identified 579 expired vaccine doses, worth $14,645, which represents three percent of the VFC vaccines observed in the study. If three percent of all VFC vaccines ordered during 2010 were allowed to expire, approximately 2.4 million VFC vaccine doses would be subject to waste, or about $60 million worth of vaccine annually.

Dr. Lo, of the Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin, has experience in that regard. Last year one of GHC-SCW’s clinics lost approximately $20,000 worth of vaccines when a storage case malfunctioned during a weekend. If a similar event happened once a year at each of GHC-SCW’s five clinics, the total losses could exceed $100,000.

“That was a sad day,” says Lo. “It was hundreds of vials, and we just didn’t know how long they had been above the desired temperature since we had no way of tracking it.”

GHC-SCW has deployed Terso Solutions’ TS029 RFID refrigerator and hosted software to better manage vaccine inventory, automate and increase efficiencies for receiving and distributing vaccines, and eliminate issues related to expiration date management and temperature monitoring.

“The RFID refrigerator and system from Terso could potentially save time for our nursing staff to do other tasks like seeing patients or re-filling prescriptions,” says Steven Lo, MD. “I’m excited to for the potential to improve our vaccine inventory control by having real time data on vaccine use, which may reduce our vaccine supply costs. We may also have the opportunity to improve management of our vaccine inventories across multiple clinics.”

Lo says that medical personnel at GHC-SCW’s five clinics in Wisconsin still track vaccines manually, resulting in inaccurate inventory data and making it difficult to keep track of expiration dates. In addition, RFID-enabled refrigerators send an alert if the products being stored deviate from a set temperature range.

Lo plans to meet with executives from Terso later this month to discuss the pilot and how to potentially expand it to all five clinics. For starters, Lo needs a better system for tagging the vials of vaccines, a task that currently occurs at the clinic site. Additionally, Lo would like to store more inventory in the units to make the return on investment more profound. During the pilot stage, which began in April, the clinic is storing four different types of vaccines.

“I can imagine a day when all of our clinics have a system like this,” says Lo, “once we work out all the kinks and the cost comes down enough to where it’s commercial viable for us. Then anybody in our clinics can pull up a data screen and see that we’re running short on a vaccines and see if our sister clinic can send a couple of vials, or if we need to order more from the manufacturer to avoid a shortage and telling a patient that they’ll have to come back another time.”

Click here to view the full report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Click here to learn how RFID prevented $600,000 in rare cancer drugs from spoiling.

 

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