The retail supply chain is beginning to be seen as much more than simply a route for getting drugs from A to B by pharmaceutical companies. It provides an opportunity to ensure better quality products and services, while also creating a competitive advantage with customers - but, crucially, only if the data involved is well managed and connected.

There have already been signs of this in practice, with Walgreens Boots Alliance, of which Boots is a subsidiary, recently announcing a deal with FedEx to launch next day drug deliveries. The goal of this collaboration, and others like it, is not only to be able to track and trace products, but to cut costs, increase efficiency and improve customer satisfaction by being able to look more closely within the supply chain. In effect, think just like Amazon does.

It’s also true that supply chains are becoming more complex and personalised, further increasing the gap between competition. In the US for example, Kite Pharma provides the first CAR-T therapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The company is able to take a sample from a patient to a lab and then get a personalised product back to that same patient in time for it to be effective. As that supply chain scales, consider the importance of secure, well governed and integrated supply chain data.

Valuable data is everywhere across the pharma supply chain, from the factory floor to the bathroom medicine cabinet, but it lives in complex, operational and analytic silos. Without the capability to integrate the data and make it operational, companies are at risk of failing to comply with regulations, such as the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD), which is now being rolled out across the UK and Europe. Challenges include:

  • Batch tracking difficulty
  • Process and order management inefficiencies
  • Unplanned downtime
  • Temperature control challenges
  • Lack of shipping transparency

As competition increases and supply chains become more complex, these challenges can not only create regulatory and reputational risk, but also constrain companies’ ability to adapt in the future. What the pharma industry needs to transform the supply chain from a source of regulatory risk to a legitimate business opportunity is complete 360-degree visibility of and control of their data. It’s the companies that can pull data from across the supply chain to cut costs and better serve customers that will obviously be most successful.

What’s more, achieving this is not as daunting as it might seem. Once digitalisation has occurred in one part of the supply chain, the same (or very similar) principles can be applied in other areas. This will result in the transformation of data silos built up over several years into a source of process innovation. Data processes that in the past may have taken months, such as sorting and matching reference data, can now be automated and processed in minutes, occasionally less. The benefits of this for logistics, drug delivery and regulatory purposes alone are plentiful.

The pharma industry could do worse than to look at other industries for guidance and best practices. Automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies has already seen the manufacturing sector for example being referred to as Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution. It’s the companies that capitalise now that will gain the competitive advantage.

Bill Fox is VP of Healthcare and Life Sciences at MarkLogic