Logistical skills: The Panacea The Pharma Sector Needs

pharmaceutical lab

This is a guest post for BioSpace, contributed by Leigh Anderson, Managing Director at Bis Henderson Recruitment.

With a swirl of rumors around the changes in ownership in the pharma industry, this invariably triggers reviews of business strategies and consequent reassessment of whether the right skills and expertise are in place to achieve new goals. This comes on top of more fundamental changes that have been triggered or accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pharmaceutical retail, wholesale and distribution sector is ‘in play’, as they say on the markets. 

The Current Landscape

In parallel with this market activity, we are seeing a marked upswing in recruitment for senior and middle-ranking logistics and supply chain posts in the sector. And it’s hardly surprising, as wider skillsets from pertinent related sectors will be needed.

Changes in ownership invariably trigger reviews of business strategies and consequent reassessment of whether the right skills and expertise are in place to achieve the new goals. But this comes on top of more fundamental changes that have been triggered or accelerated by the Covid pandemic.

Restructuring, and pharmacy involvement in vaccine rollouts, have prompted significant and ongoing investment in new distribution centers, final mile delivery and automation, including robotic dispensing solutions. In addition, the pandemic has revealed critical dependencies, especially for packaging and drug delivery supplies, which has pushed supply chain resilience higher up on corporate agendas.

More fundamentally, the pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of medicine, including pharmacology. Pressure on general practice has been met by ramping up the NHS Direct platform, and by a boom in private-sector online medicine. And this is extending to the online ordering of drugs and therapies, particularly repeat prescriptions, for delivery Direct-to-Patient.

The processes are analogous to, but with significant differences from, consumer eCommerce. Direct-to-Patient promises to be more convenient, reduce waste, encourage better course adherence by patients and help control the problem of parallel imports. Better visibility of demand can be fed into predictive analytics for further improvement. But exactly what this might mean for the role of wholesalers is still in question.

The vaccine development and roll-out process has also highlighted the importance of accurate logistics in clinical trials, where any supply failure risks negating months or years of development work and delaying the deployment of valuable therapies.

Healthcare is a data-rich environment, and there is now a real emphasis on using sophisticated data analytics, to quote Walden, “to optimize logistics processes and streamline flows both within health entities (pharmacies, hospitals), and also directly to patients”. Digitalization is rapidly being applied to a host of regulatory requirements, from real-time traceability to quality control, market authorization, pharmaceutical release, customs brokerage and more.

Forward-looking companies are also beginning to plan for an era of individually tailored therapies, especially around cell and gene therapies. So-called ‘vein to vein’ supply chains will require needle-sharp logistics to move blood or tissue samples from the patient to the laboratory, as well as deliver the resultant therapy back to the patient – all under critical time pressure. 

The trend, already evident, is forever wider product ranges, in smaller volumes and with high demand volatility, with very short shelf lives, requiring differing temperature regimes, dealt with in part by the increasing use of postponement strategies. And, needless to say, all this has to be conducted with the highest ethical and customer-centric focus.

Reassessing the Skillset in Your Business

So what are the skills companies are looking for to meet this complex agenda? Clearly, experience in significant change management will be valuable. There are specific technical skills in demand – in robotics and automation, in the application of big data analytics to supply chain and distribution activities and in building effective direct-to-user distribution channels taking appropriate learnings from consumer eCommerce. 

Experience in time-critical sectors (short-life products and stringent delivery time requirements), and in reducing fulfillment times is in demand, as is experience in using procurement and supplier relations processes to improve supply chain resilience.

Managers at all levels will also need an understanding of how heavily regulated industries have to operate – especially as some innovations in, for example, direct-to-patient supply may, in some countries, require legal or regulatory change.

Partly because of this, there has been an unspoken assumption in parts of the sector that senior staff really need a medical, pharmacological or life science background. But it is now appreciated that this isn’t necessarily the case, and that there are lessons to be learned and knowledge to be transferred from other sectors – consumer eCommerce, temperature-controlled food distribution chains, even the data analytics used in high volume, but high variance, industries such as fashion.

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