Along with food and shelter, healthcare is at the top of the list of human needs for quality of life. Science-based medicine has more than doubled the average human lifespan by reducing the incidence and impact of disease. In order to provide life-saving treatments, a healthcare supply chain that stretches across the globe links natural resources with the medical supplies administered to patients.
Making sure that this precisely choreographed flow of materials and finished goods functions as intended is the mission of health supply chain management. Comprising logistics, economics, medical knowledge, and data analytics, health supply chain management is a multidisciplinary undertaking that ensures that critical health supplies reach patients.
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The critical task of health supply chain management
The healthcare supply chain is unlike other supply chains in many ways. A disruption in the supply chain that produces new smartphones will have economic consequences, but a supply chain disruption in the medical supply chain could result in negative health consequences and even death. During early 2020, the United States faced a severe shortage of ventilators for COVID-19 patients, forcing health professionals to make difficult triage decisions about which patients would be given ventilator care.
In addition to the imperatives for public health, the unique and specific handling requirements of some medical supplies produce complex challenges for health supply chain management. Human organs and tissues for transplantation and blood for transfusion must be kept just above freezing in order to remain viable. This requires the creation and maintenance of precisely refrigerated supply chains known as cold chains.
Healthcare supply chains stretch from the extraction of raw materials to the patient. For instance, latex is harvested in plantations in southeast Asia, made into gloves in Malaysia, and worn by surgeons Switzerland. A disruption at any point in this chain can result in interruptions in healthcare services and patients experiencing negative outcomes.
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Balancing and building the supply chain
Healthcare supply chain management takes place in the real world, where budget constraints and regional limitations place restrictions on what it is possible to achieve. To manage costs, administrators face hard decisions when determining what medicines and treatments will be available within a health system. In a perfect world, unlimited resources could be marshalled for every patient in order to provide the highest possible care. Unfortunately, spending on one patient comes at the cost of spending on another. Overhead costs that must be devoted to an unwieldy healthcare supply chain can also siphon resources away from treating patients.
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New developments in supply chain management
Digital technology that allows every part of a supply chain to be tracked and monitored has begun to transform the practice of health supply chain management. Shortages and delays can be monitored in real time, giving administrators advance notice of emerging problems and the time to find alternative sources.
Pharmaceutical serialization requirements can provide a wealth of data about every saleable unit of medicines and the path they have taken through the pharma supply chain. Being able to trace a drug from manufacture to administration to patients means that the source of issues with pharmaceutical quality control can be tracked down by analyzing supply chain data. Determining the cause of an issue with a given unit or batch of medicine used to require extensive detective work, requiring a manual reconstruction of the entire path that a pharmaceutical product followed.
Health systems can now use computer algorithms for a number of tasks where the complexity may be too great for a human to be able to perform quickly and accurately. One such example is the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, which uses digital data to match organ donors with those needing transplants and to create a complex chain where donors and patients can be matched across the country.
Similarly, artificial intelligence algorithms have opened new avenues in health supply chain management and are now being used to find patterns in supply chains that have often been too subtle for a human to see.
FAQs: What tools are used in health supply chain management?
What tools are used in health supply chain management?
Logistics software that tracks deliveries and stock is used to manage the health supply chain. In addition, specialized software that can scan and track medication at the time of administration is used to help comply with pharmaceutical serialization track and trace requirements.
How is a patient-centric supply chain different from traditional health supply chains?
Patient-centric care, in which a patient's wishes and preferences are taken into account when prescribing treatments, places unique demands on a healthcare supply chain. The supply network must be more comprehensive to be able to accommodate a wider variety of treatment choices, and it must also be able to contend with smaller orders and shipments.
What happens when there are disruptions in a health supply chain?
Healthcare supply chain disruptions can lead to critical shortages of life-saving medications, and there may be negative health outcomes for patients. Doctors may have to use medications with unwanted side effects if a disruption has forced their first choice of medication to be out of reach.
Why is cold chain management so challenging?
Pharmaceutical cold chain management may involve a cryogenic cold chain. Cryogenic cold chains are kept at -150° Celsius and require super-chilled liquified gases to maintain these low temperatures. The health supplies transported in cold chains must be kept at their designated temperatures for their entire journey, from production to patient. This means that special infrastructure must be provisioned in order to provide the appropriate temperatures at the factory, on a truck, in the hospital, and in the exam room.
How can health supply chains be made more reliable?
Health supply chain management can draw on supply chain risk management practices used in other domains in order to increase resiliency. The tight tracking of pharmaceuticals gives data analytics software a large data set to analyze for patterns that may reveal weaknesses in the supply chain.