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Pharma Supply Chains: The Logistics of Saving Lives

By William DiBenedetto, CBN Feature Editor

While most supply chains have their unique and complicated aspects, the stakes are much higher when it comes to handling pharmaceuticals.

In many cases lives are at stake and time is ultra-critical — the medicine or equipment simply can’t be late, adulterated or compromised by poor handling, inadequate packaging or improper temperatures. And pharmaceutical companies are constantly expanding into emerging markets, so logistics providers must be agile enough to scale up and/or scale down as products go on or off the market.

For pharma, it’s not just logistics — it’s also about having a deep understanding of all the factors and nuances that go into a successful pharmaceutical supply chain.

Characteristics that make for good supply chains in general are not drastically different in the healthcare industry, but "they are a bit stricter and more quality focused since the implications of errors are more severe," according to Dirk Van Peteghem, marketing vice president of healthcare logistics at UPS.

In a recent interview with Cargo Business News, Peteghem noted that focusing on knowledge, visibility, quality and control are vital in healthcare. It’s essential to know "where your product is, and where your temperature ranges are for a lot of pharma products — so the monitoring ability is a very key aspect of the pharmaceutical supply chain."

UPS studies temperature profiles, using technology to monitor temperatures throughout the network. By tracking this massive amount of data, Peteghem says "you can start optimizing temperature-sensitive packaging for pharma products," adjusting logistics accordingly.

He noted trust and collaboration are crucial in healthcare, and begin by demonstrating that your company features a high-quality supply chain that can handle products in a proscribed and safe manner. "Once you have the trust of the

manufacturer, it's a matter of consistently trying to improve on what you've done the day before…it's all about building that reputation, and that’s a slow and difficult process."

That said, innovation in healthcare product transport is difficult to implement. Peteghem reports that many healthcare companies don’t want to be the first to try out an promising but untested idea. He said companies like the idea of innovation and a smarter solution, but tend to stick with proven methods.

In terms of IT, he sees no massive changes on the horizon. The industry is trending toward more software-as-a-service, more integration between different platforms and more data mining and utilization of Big Data. "The industry as a whole is starting to collect a lot more data and we'll see better and smarter use of that data to improve the supply chain."

Peteghem says there’s a slogan at UPS: "It’s a patient, not a package." A case in point involves a recent logistics challenge. With Southeast Asia’s flu season approaching, Walgreens decided to donate more than 375,000 doses of flu vaccine to Laos. It was a massive undertaking across five countries — Louisville to Anchorage to Incheon, South Korea to Shenzhen, China to Bangkok, Thailand to Laos — 9,000 miles on tight time line. During the many steps of this trip the temperature of the vaccines never varied more than 1.5 degrees.

The trickiest part was the road to Laos, Peteghem noted. In this case it wasn’t the last mile, it was the last 50 miles that made the slogan real.