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The critical role of distributors amid natural disasters, and strategies to protect and maintain the pharma supply chain
Pharmaceutical distributors have a responsibility to ensure patient access to vital medications and products every day. As natural disasters and extreme weather events-such as hurricanes, heavy floods, tornadoes, and fires-increase in frequency year over year, distributors’ work is crucial to protect the supply chain and create contingency plans for the efficient and timely delivery of medications. Ensuring the health care supply chain operates consistently and without disruption during these times of need requires concerted coordination across the health care industry.
Preemptive Planning and Communication
As connectors between those who create and those who prescribe and dispense medication, pharmaceutical distributors are in a unique role that requires them to maintain open lines of communication with manufacturers and sites of care, such as pharmacies, hospitals or physician practices. When facing a natural disaster, that responsibility becomes even more critical to prevent any disruption of services. Distributors begin collaborating with provider customers who reside within the expected path before the disaster even hits to assess the medication needs of their communities, provide advanced ordering options, and order additional products as needed.
Additionally, distributors make similar connections with local government agencies prior to a storm’s fall to begin planning and coordinating alternative routes for future deliveries. This helps ensure that distributors can identify the best travel routes in a timely manner once a known or anticipated disaster makes landfall.
Contingency plans for power outages
Power outages can be one of the largest barriers to patient care during a natural disaster, especially considering the steady rise in temperature-controlled therapies that require refrigeration. In fact, it is predicted that the cold chain industry will increase by 65% through 2020.1 Knowing this, distributors work with their partners to prepare contingency plans to ensure these costly and highly sensitive products are not compromised. At AmerisourceBergen, for example, we leverage refrigerated trailers and on-site backup generators, as necessary, at our distribution centers to safeguard medicines, so they remain viable in the event of a long-term power outage.
Alternate delivery routes
Inaccessible or blocked roads as a result of flooding, debris, or stalled traffic also present major obstacles in getting critical medical supplies to the patients who need them. Anticipating potential delays, distributors proactively plan for alternate transportation methods and delivery routes. In the most extreme instances, distributors may mobilize durable vehicles with the ability to withstand floodwaters, or even airlift critical supplies to reach impacted areas.
In the past, AmerisourceBergen has activated dedicated ground teams within impacted areas to prioritize deliveries via local couriers, government organizations, and the military. As a part of this process, we work with state officials to obtain travel authorizations for roads that are closed or restricted to the general public due to a declared state of emergency, enabling us to deliver essential products to hospitals, pharmacies, and other health care providers using the fastest routes possible.
Post-natural disaster efforts
The work of a distributor doesn’t stop once the storm or weather event passes, as the residual effects on the community can persist for days, weeks or even months. Distributors must ensure warehouses are fully operational and able to execute outbound fulfillments to get critical medications and supplies to patients in the aftermath of the storm. As mentioned, hospital and pharmacy locations are likely to experience a loss of refrigeration, limiting cold chain supplies in the impacted region. As such, distributors develop comprehensive plans to deliver urgent cold chain products as quickly as possible, often working with nearby distribution centers for fulfillment. With so much partnership across the industry, it's not uncommon for a distributor to service a competitor's customers or carry their product on a truck that is moving in the right direction.
Distributors often go a step further to leverage their distribution centers for more than just pharmaceutical shipments following a storm. This can include housing emergency supplies, such as food, water, and clothing. And to further support our customers at AmerisourceBergen, we enable guest wireless access at our distribution centers to ensure providers and pharmacies without internet access can still order the medications their patients need.
Disaster preparedness and relief require a thoughtful, synchronized effort from all stakeholders to successfully support communities in the affected regions. Behind the scenes, there is a vast network of organizations working around the clock to minimize supply chain disruptions and maintain patient access to pharmaceuticals. Distributors play a critical role in these efforts-not only coordinating with manufacturers, providers and local organizations to ensure patients get their treatments when and where they need them, but also helping to restore a sense of normalcy following a potentially devastating event.
1. Microtek Laboratories, Inc. Life Sciences: Protecting Your Pharmaceuticals. Ch. 1: Temperature and Humidity Control in the Pharmaceutical Industry. https://www.microteklabs.com/life-sciences-protecting-your-pharmaceuticals#ch_1_temperature_and_humidity_control_in_the_pharmaceutical_industry