Healthy societies transform economies. Yet the SARS, Ebola and COVID-19 pandemics of the past few years demonstrated that our healthcare infrastructure is not strong enough to make this a sustainable reality – particularly for developing markets.
Healthcare logistics is a complex beast and unique to that of any other sector. From national laws governing the use of certain medicines to the unpredictability of a patient’s drug and resource needs throughout their lifetime, there are countless uncertainties to overcome when building a reliable, agile healthcare supply chain.
At its core, healthcare is reactive: it responds to medical needs as they arise and fulfils them, which is generally sufficient for the world’s strongest nations. But one of the most challenging variables for healthcare everywhere is pandemics – which, ideally, require action long before they have the chance to take hold. Even the world’s most sophisticated healthcare networks struggled under the pressure of the SARS and COVID-19 outbreaks due to insufficient supply chain visibility – and simply not knowing what resources would be needed to fight these new viruses.
The other problem with pandemics is that they are becoming increasingly likely. Climate change is influencing the range of disease-carrying insects; increased urbanisation is seeing communities living in more confined quarters without adequate sanitation; humans are having greater contact with animal populations, increasing the likelihood of cross-species contamination; and, of course, the travel revolution is connecting communities more fluidly than ever before.
All these factors impact us on a local and international level, but none more so than in developing regions such as Africa and India, where extreme environments and rapidly growing populations are impeding infrastructural healthcare development.
So, how can we overcome these barriers for healthcare logistics to boost health access in developing markets, protect them from future health crises and strengthen their economies?
Understanding the obstacles
The reality is that without external support, these regions are at the highest risk of future pandemics as they do not have the finances (or often the skillsets) to implement a specialist supply chain infrastructure at scale.
Successful healthcare logistics requires multilevel investment to ensure everyone from the clinician to the pharmaceutical provider is transparent. This explains why 40% of external spend for the best healthcare systems goes on logistics, according to Gartner and McKinsey.
This kind of investment can provide agility, which is the goal for healthcare in and out of crisis periods. Such agility provides hospitals with the ability to make quick, informed decisions about one drug over another based on its efficacy, availability, safety and price at its most basic level. It also ensures supplies are stockpiled in safe conditions for future needs.
Artificial intelligence obviously carries huge potential for agility, but it’s expensive. Further, with rising global temperatures often hitting developing nations the hardest, investment into specialised storage and transport facilities is non-negotiable to keep certain supplies viable over long periods of time – and this may require total infrastructural modernisation in some places.
Money isn’t the only issue, however. Geopolitics plays a huge role in healthcare logistics, weighing heavily on the procurement process of base chemicals for certain pharmaceuticals. For some of the DNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, for example, the arcane chemicals required for their development were only available from South Korea and China. Current trade tensions with China show how volatile these vital resources could be when the next pandemic comes around, which is something the least able nations can’t afford to endure.
Another consideration is people. According to a recent study by Deloitte, healthcare leaders cited people as the foundation of resilient healthcare supply chains. From building strong relationships with vendors to lessen the impact of sudden health crises to using data to help trained staff make better, faster decisions that could save lives, the healthcare network can’t run without human beings. So, upskilling people through health education worldwide is vital to the long-term effectiveness of healthcare supply chains.
Breaking down barriers
What, then, are the next steps for applying these considerations into real-life solutions for those who need them most? In short, it’s up to logistical specialists like us to step up investment in these regions.
Established logistics operators have longstanding relationships with the world’s leading pharma and healthcare manufacturers combined with the know-how for implementing reliable infrastructure in new markets. Further, thanks to our global supply chain networks, we already seamlessly connect the world’s manufacturing hubs and key markets. Through us, the health sector can trade confidently with developing nations without either party having to build the infrastructure and know-how themselves.
Much of the work we conduct also involves investing in the people of new markets we enter. To ensure healthcare access works and can stand the test of time, accessible science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is fundamental. This will benefit the healthcare practices in these developing areas and the supply chain keeping them in operation. Greater understanding of these topics can also help with overall health awareness, thereby minimising health risk factors as communities grow to understand the consequences of things such as poor hygiene – and potentially warding off a pandemic.
Of course, logistics operators also rely on local talent to ensure new supply chain integrations are successful, from instilling trust in communities to better understanding topographical challenges in these regions (especially where it could mean volatile pharmaceuticals could be exposed to extreme environments). This is the basis for strategically built physical infrastructure. And when combined with digital supply networks, which can provide the visibility the health industry needs to remain effective and accessible whatever happens, it’s possible to imagine a globally equitable healthcare sector that’s equipped for the next crisis.