The medical device industry has traditionally been relatively inward-looking. Enchanted by the seemingly endless stream of new developments, and the complex and overwhelming nature of regulation, it has been narrow in its scope, and that has served it well.

The current geopolitical and economic climate demands companies take a different approach, particularly when it comes to logistics. This is a recent trend that has not gone unnoticed by Bruce J Stanley, an adviser and consultant with many years of experience in the industry, and an equally impressive enthusiasm for optimising all aspects of medical device development. Indeed, this trend has only become more relvant in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. “You can have a leader somewhere in the world who says, well, we’re going to do this today and it changes everything,” says Stanley. “Companies have to expect the unexpected and be prepared.”

Logistics has always involved operating across many countries, all with differing rules and regulations, but recent developments mean that this work now looks very different. “Companies have been transacting across multiple jurisdictions forever, so that’s not changed,” says Stanley. “But what has changed is the speed at which those policies occur. So logistics leaders now have to become ‘policy wonks’, and they have to stay so close to it.”

Stanley doesn’t necessarily see this new challenge as a disadvantage. “It’s not a dark cloud or a white cloud,” he says. “The cloud is just there and shifting every minute. The latest trend that we see as a result of that, across logistics, is trying to get people and systems better integrated. “Technology has been and will continue to be the driver. You know, as things like blockchain come on board, the use of AI is coming quickly in many cases, data is becoming increasingly valuable.”

Issues with innovation

However, the need for speed means that sometimes these tools are not implemented in a thoughtful way. “It’s going so fast across all industries across so many different things that it is outstripping the user’s ability to use it effectively,” says Stanley.

“Too often I’ve seen clients where they’re thinking the right thoughts, meaning ‘we’ve got to get our data pristine, we got to get it synchronised, we’ve got to get this interoperability’. But then I always ask them, ‘so what changes when you do this?’ And too often I hear? ‘We thought it would be the best thing. So we did it. We don’t actually know what the outcome will be.’”

The enthusiasm of technology often overrides careful consideration about the key values and purpose of a company. “You know, people get excited about all the gadgets, the widgets and all the stuff, the whiz bang thing that they see on the internet,” explains Stanley. “They don’t often go back to their companies and then go ‘What do we actually do here?’”

Even more importantly, the end-user is often overlooked. “I was at an industry conference not too long ago and it took them four hours before the word ‘patient’ came up,” says Stanley. “I was astounded. They talk about all the things they do and all the technology, and all this, but the patient gets forgotten.”

Ways to minimise risk

There are notable differences between companies with the ease in which they are adjusting to the greater use of these tools in logistics. “Sometimes the smaller start-ups or medium companies can navigate this new technology faster than, say, a large company where there is so much at stake,” explains Stanley. “Big companies are often very slow to adapt. All they need is one lawsuit or one big problem where patients die or something, and the whole enterprise is at risk.”

Obtaining a competitive edge starts at the top “It’s driven by the leadership of the company,” says Stanley. “They have got to be visionary, enough to challenge the norm.”

A careful balance has to be struck between pushing for progress and falling off a cliff edge. “These entrepreneurs are wonderful people; they’re smart and they’re business savvy,” says Stanley. “But they often try to do things that don’t work within the system.”

“Companies have been transacting across multiple jurisdictions forever, so that’s not changed. But what has changed is the speed at which those policies occur. So logistics leaders now have to become ‘policy wonks’, and they have to stay so close to it.”

One potential solution is already visible within the industry. “I think this is why you see a lot of the large medical companies buying smaller technology companies,” says Stanley. “The smaller ones have learned how to adapt new technology to get to market faster. So the large companies wait until the small companies become successful and then bring them in as a stand-alone subsidiary or something, working out the legal mechanics so they don’t put the large enterprise at risk.”

Optimise potential

There are clear benefits to embracing these technologies across the industry but these are particularly applicable with relation to logistics. “You know, I think robotics and AI, mixed use of logistics vehicles operational vehicle is huge, and it’s only going to get better,” says Stanley. “I know they’re going to figure out better ways to get products to customers. I don’t think it’s going to be drones in your driveway. But they’ll be better ways of using technology.”

Less haste, more speed seems to be a pertinent proverb in this instance. “We’re at a point now where we need to digest what we have,” says Stanley. “We need to learn how to optimise the use of it.” All the different companies involved in medical device logistics are having to embrace newer technologies and embed them into working practices, including those providing air freight services.

“You know, a generation ago, it was either the cost or the speed; that’s all it was,” says Stanley. “Now, there are other reasons why people would use air freight. You might have different technology developed that will mean more use of air freight and it’ll be different than what we’re accustomed to.”

There are several ways that air freight will change, driven by the development of devices that better meet the unique needs of patients. “You’ll end up with smaller and faster aircraft, and more locations than we have today,” says Stanley. “What you’re going to find is that as healthcare becomes more personalised to the patient, you’re going to find air freight becoming more personalised to the technology.”

This means that when a patient needs a specific type of medical device, they will be much more likely to receive it by air freight than they are currently. Such a trend is in stark contrast to many other industries, where concerns about sustainability are much more prevalent. However, when health is the primary focus – epitomised by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – being worried about the carbon footprint of an aircraft is perceived as being a minor issue. Becoming more environmentally friendly is more likely to be achieved by exploring the use of different materials and a greater emphasis on recycling.

It’s clear that change is on the horizon, not only in logistics, but across the whole industry. With more and more companies entering the market, those failing to embrace newer technologies risk getting left behind.

Technologies that can disrupt the supply chain

Artificial intelligence (AI)

It’s exciting to see AI technology already being adopted in healthcare, especially around the ability to use genomics, and socio-economic and behavioural data, to predict future patient needs. It’s also exciting to consider how the supply chain could use this data to better plan for the types of products and services required to support patient care. AI could also help predict potential shortages or backorders and enable the industry to ensure availability of products where they are needed, while avoiding overstocking areas where products are at risk of expiring before usage.

Internet of things (IoT)

There’s nearly endless potential for healthcare to leverage some of the IoT applications proved successful in other industries. For instance, modern HVAC systems are equipped with sensors that can detect when a particular component is close to failure. Over time, we may see sensors installed on implanted medical devices to provide similar advance warnings.

3D printing

3D printing is increasingly being used in healthcare and holds some interesting potential from a supply chain perspective, from lowering the cost of products to creating implants that are customised for individual patients. We may also see an environment where hospitals and healthcare systems become manufacturers of the products themselves, further changing the nature of the supply chain and what products are delivered to whom.

Product tracking

Adoption of auto ID and capture technology continues to grow and will remain an important tool to both automate and improve the accuracy of data capture. As more products are labelled with unique device identifiers and production data – for example, lot and serial numbers and expiration dates – hospitals and healthcare systems can better track what products are used on which patients for cost and patient safety considerations.

Use of logistics optimisation tools

Logistics optimisation has made huge strides in recent years thanks to AI-supported logistics technologies developed by companies like UPS and Amazon. As care increasingly moves beyond the four walls of a hospital, healthcare needs to adopt best practices from these logistics thought leaders. This list represents a small sample of the innovative technologies helping to shape the future healthcare supply chain. As silos between the supply chain and clinicians further dissolve, leaders across these disciplines will increasingly work hand in hand to deliver an unequalled quality of care for patients at a lower cost, thanks to the power of data and technology.

Source: Health Data Management