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Injecting Trust in the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain with Technology-led Transparency

With the strong uptake of COVID-19 vaccines this year, there is a need to ensure increased stability, visibility, and transparency across the supply chain to drive resilience in these times. However, the pharmaceutical industry in APAC – and its supply chain – still have some way to go both in keeping up with increased reliance on healthcare and in winning patients’ trust with Zebra Technologies’s latest Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Vision Study, revealing the low level of patients’ trust in entities within the pharmaceutical supply chain as an area of concern.

by Tan Aik Jin

Vaccines have been the talk of the town since the pandemic started and public interest is not likely to wane with the COVID-19 pandemic entering its third year now. The COVID-19 vaccination is reported to be the biggest vaccination campaign in history, with more than 9.45 billion doses being administered across 184 countries as of 10 January 2022.1 In the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, countries like Singapore have among the highest vaccination rates, with 96 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated.2 Supply chain stability, visibility, and transparency in the pharmaceutical industry have become imperative, given the sheer number of people receiving vaccinations worldwide.

Despite this, the reality is that the pharmaceutical industry in APAC and its supply chain still have some way to go both in keeping up with increased reliance on healthcare and in winning patients’ trust. Zebra Technologies’s latest Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Vision Study revealed the low level of patients’ trust in entities within the pharmaceutical supply chain as an area of concern. Patients surveyed also cited the perceived risk of illness and/or possible death that could result from contaminated or tainted medications making their way into the supply chain.

Evidently, it is not just the manufacturers’ practices that are being scrutinised. Pharmaceutical entities are being watched as well.

69 per cent of patients surveyed expressed concerns about receiving an improper dose of medication due to labelling errors, which suggest that they worry about the harm this could potentially cause them. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that over half of patients surveyed believe that pharmaceutical entities are responsible for ensuring the safety of medications and the pharmaceutical supply chain.


The Crucial Role Pharmacists Play in the Patient Experience

While everyone in the pharmaceutical industry needs to be accountable for drug safety, efficacy, and accessibility, pharmacists are often the “face” of the industry. They, along with prescribing physicians, are the ones patients typically approach with questions and concerns. They are also the ones clinicians and patients are likely to call first when they experience a problem or hear about potential medication safety issues.

Therefore, my colleague, John Wirthlin, Zebra Technologies’s Industry Principal for Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, recommends for pharmacy staff to:

  • Positively identify the patient, verify the order, and check the label to ensure it is correct before handing the medication off to a clinician or patient;
  • Provide detailed instructions about how to take the medication and be prepared to answer all questions;
  • Update the electronic health record so future prescribing physicians and other pharmacists know the patients’ full history should they be approached with questions or need to change treatment plans;
  • Properly record the fulfilment of an order in the inventory management system so sourcing teams can monitor sell-through rates and see when stock levels reach the mandatory replenishment threshold;
  • Ensure proper rotation of drugs to avoid dispensing expired batches;
  • Secure pharmaceuticals from tampering; and
  • Monitor the quality of temperature-sensitive medications.

Along with these factors, some factors that are important to patients surveyed in the Zebra study are traceability, transparency, and authenticity when it comes to medications. Overall, there is still room for improvement in the level of patient trust within the pharmaceutical supply chain and industry.


Improving Trust With Technology-Led Transparency

Pharmaceutical sector enterprises in APAC can harness the benefits of technology to improve operations, increase traceability within the supply chain, and better protect patient health. Enhanced visibility is key to an agile and efficient supply chain. 86 per cent of patients and 92 per cent of pharmaceutical industry decision-makers surveyed in the same Zebra study agree technology investments provide a competitive edge in managing supply chain stability, Those responsible for producing, distributing, storing, and dispensing medications can leverage radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies to track and trace inventory levels and movements, like how hospitals use RFID to monitor and manage equipment, supplies, and other assets. Such location solutions can provide real-time visibility for each item. This would require the tagging of every bottle and package, which may be labour-intensive if not done right from the start. Therefore, pharmaceutical manufacturers are recommended to commit to tagging every item before it leaves the production facility. This will allow everyone downstream to benefit, including patients seeking more information and transparency about their medications.

As patients prioritise traceability, some patients may also be curious about the origin and medication journey end-to-end. Such data can be retrieved at the point of sale or administration via RFID tags, assuming there is proper device synchronisation with critical drug information systems, such as those managed by manufacturers and regulatory bodies. In the event that a recall occurs, pharmacists would then be able to know which medications to pull and inform clinicians about how to handle patient inquiries and adjust treatments accordingly.

There are other benefits of modernising with technology too. RFID, along with barcode scanning devices, can help pharmacists quickly and accurately scan everything from medication packaging to customer IDs and order receipts. This will be helpful to record cancelled orders and reshelved inventory, which can help with maintaining stock levels. RFID and barcode technologies are also helpful in verifying the “first in, first out” utilisation of drugs to minimise the administration of expired drugs and reduce overall waste.

When buying labels for inventory, pharmaceutical manufacturers should also consider whether a temperature-sensitive label could be beneficial. While some supply chains could probably rely on cold storage temperature sensors to ensure drugs remain stable, sensors can sometimes break or go offline, and medications and vaccines can get inadvertently left out on the tarmac, loading dock or counter during busy periods. Having a way to confirm if a temperature excursion occurred at any point from the first mile through the last can help ensure that the wrong assumptions are not made, and doses are not unnecessarily wasted.


Be Proactive in Addressing Supply Chain Problems

Nearly two-thirds of patients surveyed in Zebra’s study believe more regulation of the pharmaceutical supply chain is needed. Additionally, one-third of industry decision-makers surveyed rank regulatory compliance among the top five challenges facing their businesses today. Instead of waiting for greater regulation to help ensure the safety, efficacy, and accessibility of medications dispensed, industry players stand to benefit from a proactive approach. Implementation of technology tools will go a long way toward improving patients’ trust and protecting patients.

The more industry decision-makers, pharmaceutical entities, and pharmacists know about the status of historical, current, and inbound inventory, the more effectively collaboration can take place with regulators, supply chain partners, practice leaders, and patients to find solutions to problems and build trust in the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical drugs.

It is important for pharmaceutical enterprises in APAC to implement technologies in the “3T” category – track, trace, and trust – sooner rather than later. To restore patients’ trust, the supply chain, along with its inventory management and asset location capabilities, will have to be strengthened.

You can learn more about the state of the pharmaceutical supply chain by downloading the full study report, at no charge, here.3 [APBN]

About the Author

Tan Aik Jin (AJ) is currently the Asia Pacific Vertical Solutions Lead for Zebra Technologies, the market leader in rugged mobile computers, barcode scanners, and barcode printers enhanced with software and services to enable real-time enterprise visibility. Aik Jin is an evangelist for Zebra’s solutions in the Manufacturing and Transport & Logistics sectors.