Introduction:

In supply chain, the anti-counterfeit initiatives requiring that medicines be serialized at the “saleable item” level has driven significant investment in track and trace. Much of that investment takes place on the packaging line itself, where upgrades are needed to support in-line printing and verification of 2D barcodes. But as important is the need to track those serialized products, which are often aggregated into cases, shippers and pallets. And it’s in the tracking and tracing of these millions of serialized product that SAP has deep competence, allowing participants in 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 computer in our pockets: our mobile phones. The resolution of the camera today can already scan these very 2D barcodes on the secondary pharmaceutical packaging to provide us all with some assurance that the medicine is authentic. This happens almost by magic as a serial number is deciphered from the scan and sent through multiple systems and interfaces for comparing with serial numbers used by the manufacturer. SAP has customers today that are providing this service to their patients, and such cellphone authentication has been extended beyond Life Sciences to the food and agricultural products industry for anti-counterfeit, supply chain analysis and consumer loyalty purposes.

The key role of the smartphone:

What else can this device do in the hands of the patient, truly the endpoint of the medicines 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 Communication) for tap payments and electronic sensing to receive the GPS coordinates that help us navigate. But in healthcare, there are more specialized sensors that we can connect to our phones and which one day may even be on board as standard. Some examples:

  • Replace your standard cellphone case with one containing embedded sensors to monitor heartrate: a real-time mobile ECG that has already been shown to diagnose the onset of heart attack. All for less than US$100.
  • Use a low-cost mobile ultrasound scanner: Just download the relevant app, connect the USB ultrasound transducer, and start scanning.
  • Even the microphone is capable of an expanded 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 the enhancement of the onboard microphone to 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. Smell come from organic compounds carried on the breath, which can now be analyzed by sensors at levels far below those detected by the human nose. This leads to earlier detection, and to detecting of a wider range of medical conditions. Steps are already being taken to miniaturize and embed the sensors for such compounds into the microphone itself.

 

The smartphone from authentication of medicines to self-diagnostics:

Today, the complex industrial world of high-speed inline barcode label printing connects with our personal health through our smartphone by allowing us to authenticate medicines.

Soon we will use that same smartphone to help diagnose the very condition that may need such medicines. The diagnosis can come from sensor technology, or by simply by entering symptoms to an AI (Artificial Intelligence) engine, which can fast-track a prognosis by symptom checkers 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.

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