Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology could be introduced in chemists across the UK within the next 12 months, following a successful trial.
A three-month pilot backed by a number of pharmaceutical companies, which ended at the end of January, added RFID tags to 180,000 medicines to improve visibility in the supply chain and to counter the distribution of counterfeit and illegal drugs.
Results of the trial were announced earlier this week. The technology companies involved in the project are now discussing a national scheme with the government and industry bodies such as the National Pharmaceutical Association and the Dispensing Doctors' Association.
'We're now working to create an integrated system and are in discussions with major stakeholders, who are looking to move the group forward to take the next commercial step,' said Ian Rhodes, chief executive of Aegate, the lead technology company in the pilot.
'I would say a commercial launch is possible in as little as 12 months, but can't estimate how long those discussions will take.
'This pilot is not about tracking product from A to B. It's about checking that, as a pharmacist is about to hand over a drug to a patient, the product will be received as intended when leaving the manufacturer, and dispensed as prescribed by a doctor.'
The trial involved 44 pharmacies - including chemists and hospital dispensaries - which scanned tags attached to various products to check each item's supply chain status against a central database, matching its traditional barcode number.
The Authentication at the Point of Dispensing (APOD) system also flags other features, such as expiry dates, associated recalls or alerts, and will eventually cross-reference the name and dosage against the prescription before the drug can be dispensed to the patient.
The system uses six products from eight manufacturers, including Merck, Novartis, Schering Healthcare and Solvay.
Rhodes says the group behind the trial is working with patient medical record system vendors and the NHS to integrate the APOD system into a commercial scanning device.
Fliss Davies of Cordon Pharmacy, one of the chemists that took part in the trial, told Computing : 'This project helps chemists finally feel as though they are on an integrated NHS network, and not just shopkeepers.'
Rhodes estimates that the cost of fraud in the industry could be $68bn (£36bn) by 2009.