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COVID-19 rattled an already complex medical supply chain creating shortages of certain goods. Increased visibility and reliable data can make it more resilient.
“The list of disruptions that can hit a medical supply chain... is extremely long...," Lisa Hedman from the WHO told The Guardian.
The pandemic interrupted China and India's pharmaceutical supply lines; two of the world's largest exporters. Many countries depend on China for face masks, test kits and other antivirus equipment while India remains the world's biggest exporter of “generics".
But even without a pandemic, pharmaceutical supply chains are complex and have various manufacturing, testing and distribution sites. An obstacle in any one sector could lead to a lapse in ongoing treatment, the use of substitute prescriptions or even a shortage of medicine.
As countries move towards diversifying their medical supply chains, tracking technology can offer greater insight into where, when and why the blockage occurred.
Shipping drugs is a sensitive task, involving strict temperature control and adherence to manufacturers' transport and storage directions. In developing countries these stipulations can be virtually non-existent resulting in medicines that arrive unfit for consumption.
The efficiency and reliability of our medical supply chains have a direct impact on public health. How can we ensure the right drugs reach the right people, at the right time?
From manufacturer to patient, the medical supply chain presents a multitude of challenges that need to be managed carefully. “You basically have to keep track of every single pill – from the time that it leaves the manufacturing plant until it reaches the end user", says George Bray, VP of member engagement, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers.
HERE Supply Chain Optimization tools can increase visibility in three of the most crucial stages of the medical supply chain:
Upon approval, the fabrication of a drug's active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) are often outsourced to contract companies around the world. According to the US Senate, an estimated 80% of APIs come from China and India, with India sourcing about 70% of APIs from China.
In this case, where only one or two manufacturers are making the majority of certain APIs, a snarl in the supply chain can have widespread effects on accessibility.
In other situations, pharmaceutical companies import APIs and complete the process themselves by combining drugs with excipients—chemically inactive materials like lactose or mineral oil that help transport medication in the body.
Then the drugs are packaged—potentially at yet another location—and labelled according to its destination's standards. The finished product is shipped to the pharmacy or hospital and then delivered to or picked up by the customer.
The forthcoming EU pharmaceutical strategy is expected to reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on medical supply and propose specific actions to secure supplies and implement further improvements.
When wholesalers store and ship pharmaceuticals, they must follow humidity, temperature and other environmental protocols governed by the manufacturer. Vaccines, for example, should be stored and transported at temperatures between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius; often a challenge in extremely hot regions or developing countries.
With HERE Tracking, supply chain managers can better maintain guidelines by setting geofences and tracking medicine as it moves through countries, climates and handling facilities.
Real-time and historical map data charts the drug's journey while ETA notifications announce when it's nearby. Stage-to-stage monitoring and accurate traceability can streamline the process, achieve greater visibility and improve shipping duration.
Minimizing supply chain disruptions before they become critical, via enhanced visibility, will result in more medication arriving in shape and on time.
Helen McGuire, global program leader for non-communicable diseases at Path says:
“We do not have the robust datasets that are available for other areas of health... if your forecast is off, it can lead to increased stock-outs or waste, ultimately affecting availability of medicines."
Vizient, an American health care performance improvement company, released new research in March 2020 that revealed a drastic increase in the use of sedatives, pain relievers and anesthetic paralytics due to COVID-19.
Dr. Shanti Akers, from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany reported to NPR, a supply of pain relievers that, pre-COVID, would have lasted two or three weeks, now runs out in a day.
While the virus has undoubtedly increased medical needs, the US witnessed a shortage of 63 different drugs before coronavirus hit the country, due to a lack of manufacturers and control over international shipping details.
When “stock-outs" occur, patients with chronic health problems might have to travel further to get essential medicine and, potentially, buy it at a higher price than they are used to.
In addition, securing a drug like insulin may have a different process than obtaining equipment like syringes. The products might be housed and shipped from different locations.
Long-term solutions include manufacturing increased amounts of high-use drugs for local warehouses to store in greater quantities, in the areas that need it most.
But behind it all, lies a continuing need for accurate datasets that evidence people's changing medical needs to suppliers and policy makers, preventing shortages and maintaining efficient operations even during times of crisis.
Supply chain optimization tools help reveal much-needed data by tracking numbers and movement of inventory through stockrooms, and more effectively managing the flow by identifying inefficiencies and fast-tracking solution opportunities.