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System Takes Stock of Pharmacy Inventory and Processes

Tiny numbers on tiny bottles, which need an eagle eye. Trays and tackle boxes full of medicine, which need a good check before they go back into an operating room. Those are some of the less-glamorous details in the life of a pharmacy technician — details that MEPS Real-Time Inc. wants to automate.

The Carlsbad business makes technology that relieves some of the drudgery of inventory and speeds up the process.

MEPS’ Intelliguard system puts radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on medicine bottles, giving pharmacists and hospitals a new way to manage their stock. The business holds 16 U.S. patents and has nine more pending.

The business claims to have doubled its top-line revenue every year for the past four years, and recently added 5,000 more square feet of office space to accommodate growth.

MEPS (originally short for Medication Error Prevention System) does not disclose numbers, though CEO Shariq Hussain said he anticipates revenues in the tens of millions of dollars in its next fiscal year.

Keeping Track

At a hospital pharmacy, taking inventory covers more than the presence of a needed mix of medicine. Pharmacists, technicians and suppliers must also be aware of expiration dates and product lot numbers — and possible recalls.

MEPS products include RFID-enabled temperature-controlled cabinets (similar to small refrigerators) as well as what’s known as a kit and tray processing system. The company plans to introduce another product soon.

Hospitals put high-value inventory in the glass-doored cabinet system. Users log-in to unlock the door and take whatever medicine they need; an RFID reader then updates the inventory and the computer logs who took what. Cabinets at a particular hospital may be managed by the hospital itself or stocked by an outside vendor. If an outside vendor is in charge of the cabinets, it can keep tabs on inventory and temperature conditions in its hospital cabinets remotely, from its headquarters.

The kit and tray management system is a metal box with a built-in radio-frequency tag reader. At the end of the day, a technician can take inventory of medicine trays used in operating rooms by placing them in the box.

MEPS executives recently demonstrated the kit-and-tray system, placing a tray with more than 100 assorted vials in the box with the scanner. A computer display alerted them that one bottle of medication had expired, and that there were 102 bottles rather than the required 105. It also identified the bottle of medication that was closest to its expiration date.

The system can read RFID tags in challenging conditions, where tags may be very close to the reader, very close together or randomly aligned, said Hussain, whose background is in information technology.

A Long Beach hospital has been able to process 200 trays per day with the system, the executives said.

More than 230 acute care hospitals in the United States use the Intelliguard system. “We’re roughly installing two to three hospitals per week,” Hussain said. The business counts Sharp Memorial Hospital, Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas and Rady Children’s Hospital as local customers.

Such a system not only flags medication shortages, but excesses, MEPS executives said, describing situations where hospital management might unwittingly buy too much medication. A better idea of a hospital’s inventory helps with patient safety and cost-control efforts, the executives said.

The San Diego Stamp

The “cross-pollination of talent” in San Diego brought together telecom and medical device specialists that produced the product, Hussain said.

MEPS Real-Time has 65 employees in all, with 44 in Carlsbad.

The Howard family, onetime owner of Howard Publications and current owner of Michigan-based Howard Energy Co. Inc., owns MEPS Real-Time. Hussain said the pharmacy inventory business started life as a low-key “Skunk Works” project at another Howard business, Carlsbad-based Safety Syringes Inc. (Skunk Works is a reference to Lockheed’s secret and innovative R&D operation for aerospace). In 2012 Howard sold the syringe business to publicly traded Becton, Dickinson and Co. but kept the RFID business.

For now at least, MEPS assembles its product in Carlsbad. Antenna supplier Ethertronics Inc. is a local subcontractor. Business partners include Temecula-based pharmaceutical distributor FFF Enterprises as well as Qualcomm Life, a unit of Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) which offers wireless connectivity and data management.

MEPS REAL-TIME INC.

CEO: Shariq Hussain

Revenue: Undisclosed

No. of local employees: 44

Investors: The Howard family, management

Headquarters: Carlsbad

Year founded: 2006

What makes the company innovative: MEPS offers a patented way to manage pharmacy inventory using radio-frequency tags and readers

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