Your biopharmaceutical company’s specialty drugs can be as fragile as the health of the patients who need them. How your drugs are stored, packaged, shipped and delivered decide whether they reach your patients at the right time and in the right condition to be most effective.

In this edition of Ask a Supply Chain Expert, we asked Christopher Armstrong, vice president of distribution operations for McKesson, about the role that pharmaceutical distribution plays in helping you achieve those two goals.

What are you responsible for in your role at McKesson?

Armstrong: Our team is responsible for the storage and distribution of specialty drugs throughout the country. Biopharma companies ship their drugs to us. We store them. We package them. And then we ship and deliver them to many different healthcare settings including hospitals, pharmacies, clinics, specialty practices and even other drug wholesalers.

When you talk to biopharma companies, what are their supply chain challenges?

Armstrong: We talk to them a lot about third-party logistics. They want to know about our pharmaceutical distribution capabilities. They want to know if we can store, package, ship and deliver their drugs to different sites under different conditions. They’re particularly interested in our cold chain management processes because of the specific requirements of their specialty drugs.

Can you explain cold chain management and why that’s important to specialty drugs?

Armstrong: When we say “cold chain,” people think cold or frozen. But I like to look at it much broader than that. It’s about maintaining the required temperature of a product throughout the supply chain process. This can cover a broad range of temperatures from below freezing to room temperature. Different drugs require different storage temperatures to ensure it maintains its effectiveness for the safe administration to a patient. Many of the specialty drugs on the market are refrigerated and having sound cold chain processes throughout the supply chain is extremely important to ensure these drugs are safe and effective for the patients that need them.

What cold chain management capabilities should biopharma companies look for in a distributor?

Armstrong: First and foremost is the ability to store and ship different drugs in a manner that maintains the required temperature from the point of receipt to the point of delivery to the customer. You may have many drugs each with a different temperature need, and one range won’t work for everything. You need someone who has excellent temperature controls in their facilities that include redundant capabilities, emergency power generation and around the clock monitoring of all critical temperature alarms. It is important these systems are designed to ensure that prompt and appropriate action is taken when they’re not working properly. That way, you avoid temperature excursions outside of the drugs’ required storage temperatures. Your distributor should be able to do all these things for different types of packaging and shipping methods. Some drugs are stored in unit doses and shipped in small boxes. Others are stored in bulk and shipped on pallets. It shouldn’t matter. Your distributor should have capabilities to handle all of these types of products.

What distribution challenges does cold chain technology overcome for biopharma companies?

Armstrong: If you’re shipping your drug to different sites across the country, the weather can pose significant challenges. You have some months when the temperatures across the country are about the same. Then you have other months like November when the temperatures can range from 10 degrees to 80 degrees. Good cold chain solutions and management can neutralize those variations. Your cold chain distribution processes also need to be nimble enough to adjust to unexpected things like storms, wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters. The challenges associated with cold chain management should not be a roadblock to ensuring patients receive your drug when they need it.

What other supply chain issues can effective distribution services solve for biopharma companies?

Armstrong: From a delivery perspective, you really have to know and understand your customers. Who are you distributing your drugs to? Most hospitals have loading docks. That means you can deliver large shipments on pallets. But many physician offices don’t have loading docks. That means you have to go in the door with small packages. Also consider the expertise of the people who are getting your drugs. A school getting a box of vaccines likely doesn’t have the same drug-handling experience as the receiving department of a hospital. Having a partner with experience in distributing to many different healthcare settings can help you make the right decisions to get products to the patient as efficiently and safely as possible.

How does distribution affect the quality and safety of drugs for biopharma companies?

Armstrong: Pharmaceutical distribution by itself doesn’t necessarily improve the quality and safety of your drugs. What it does do is ensure the quality and safety of your drugs is not compromised while in the supply chain. Distribution can do that by properly receiving, storing, shipping and delivering your drugs from start to finish. That also means maintaining the right temperatures for your drugs throughout the supply chain with sound cold chain processes.

What’s the business case for effective distribution services for biopharma companies?

Armstrong: While there are many ways a distribution partner can benefit your business, two things come to mind. The first is product safety. If you’re not storing and shipping your drugs at the right temperature, for example, your drugs may lose their integrity before they reach the patient. The second is product availability. That’s about having inventory available to meet the demand for your drugs. You want to be able to deliver your drugs to your patients when they need them. Ensuring you don’t lose product due to improper storage or distribution practices is a key factor in ensuring your product is available when needed, particularly if we’re talking about high-cost and complex specialty drugs.

What supply chain management trends should biopharma companies stay on top of?

Armstrong: Everyone is concerned about costs. You’re going to push your supply chain partner to give you the best price and be as efficient as possible. That’s fine, but not at the risk of the quality and safety of your drugs. Make sure that your partner isn’t cutting corners to get drugs to your patients. The other thing to stay on top of is regulatory changes. Regulations such as the Drug Supply Chain Security Act impacts every piece of the supply chain. You need to know about these requirements and ensure your distribution partner is taking the necessary steps to ensure regulatory compliance is maintained. Your distribution partner should bring the expertise to the table to ensure all your distribution needs are met in a compliant manner.

What do you enjoy most about working with biopharma companies on their supply chain issues?

Armstrong: Well, I started my career in the field of chemistry so the science behind the products we handle fascinates me. But more importantly, it’s knowing the difference we are making in so many lives each and every day. I know that what our team does determines whether a patient gets the drug that they need to get better—it can even save their life. That responsibility is what gives us the energy to do our jobs each day. That drug has to get there and get there safely. That’s ultimately what makes this job so rewarding.

Editor’s note: Have a question for one of our supply chain experts? Please leave a comment below and let us know what you’d like to see covered in a future edition of Ask a Supply Chain Expert.

Related: Learn more about McKesson’s specialty drug distribution services for biopharma companies

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McKesson editorial staff is committed to sharing innovative approaches and insights so our customers can get the most out of their business solutions and identify areas for operational improvement and revenue growth.

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