The Global Health Supply Chain Summit 12th Edition: Baby Steps toward Client Centricity?

December 11th, 2019 | viewpoint


I recently attended the Global Health Supply Chain Summit in Johannesburg for the third time (Addis Ababa in 2013, Accra in 2017, and now).

From modest beginnings, the summit is now the premier event in the developing world health care supply chain community’s calendar. It attracts hundreds of participants including funders, implementers, government officials, and industry and vendor representatives from around the globe, with participants from sub-Saharan Africa probably in the majority. The event gives our community a chance to (re)connect, see what interesting work others are doing, discuss challenges and solutions, and take stock (no pun intended). As always, JSI was well represented, with work as diverse as human-centered design for community health supply chains to implementing a global control tower.

The theme of this year’s summit was “Maximizing Global Health Supply Chain Impact: Data and Analytics, Entrepreneurship and Accessibility,” which was timely because while our supply chains have never had more data, people’s ability to analyze and use these data has not caught up; entrepreneurship, in general, is lacking, and access to products and services remains challenging.

The organizers made a conscious effort to expand beyond the core supply chain with important discussions on pharmaceutical policy, medicine quality and access, and private-sector participation and entrepreneurship. Nutrition programming with potential synergies for health care supply chains was also discussed.

While some of us supply chain types might have preferred more “core” supply chain plenaries, the organizers’ ambition is to be applauded. In a number of cases, however, I think more could have been done to draw connections between our supply chain work and these broader contextual issues. Are there lessons in food supply chains we can adopt? Or potential synergies we should explore? How can our supply chains strengthen the uptake of high-quality medicines and reduce opportunities for fake or substandard ones? Some of these issues were touched on but not in-depth, and for the most part, participants were left to make these connections.

A few presentations helped us imagine what future supply chains might look like. I loved the presentation by Shabir Banoo of Right to Care on South Africa’s answer to overcrowded pharmacies including robotics and automated medicine dispensaries. This is a wonderful, patient-centric solution, but Shabir didn’t have time to say much about where these initiatives—still only implemented in a handful of locations—are going. And while I am biased, I did think Edward Wilson of JSI and Yasmin Chandani of inSupply Health did a great job connecting the past and present as they outlined the future in their SC Odyssey talk. And while Alfons Van Woerkom of the Global Fund and James Maloney of USAID provided valuable suggestions for future efforts (more data visibility, more focus on clients, more private sector), I am not sure that, as an industry, we showed enough of a vision for the future.

Our industry is very much at a crossroads.

The dramatic changes that started in 2000 with the Millennium Development Goals and the creation of the new agencies like Gavi, the Global Fund, PEPFAR, PMI, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation led to an explosion in funding for medicines and huge increases in clients receiving treatment for certain conditions, which in turn led to additional funding for supply chains. This wave seems to have crested and the focus now is on sustainability and self-reliance. While a huge amount of work has been done, there is also a sense of impatience with the pace of change in public-sector health care supply chains and a desire to try new models and approaches. Client-centricity—putting client needs, wants, and experiences at the center (and not the end) of the supply chain—is now seen as the new challenge.

There is a realization that the current health care supply chain systems will not suffice for the future, and there is desire to accelerate the pace of technological change to mirror what we are seeing in consumer goods supply chains. So I was a little disappointed that this latest edition of the GHSC Summit—with a few notable exceptions—didn’t convey that sense of urgency and need for change.

Our industry has changed—that was evident by the number of presentations on management information systems and data use—but too many presentations highlighted old initiatives with slight updates, or were soft promotional pieces for particular products or organizations.

At a high level we know what we need to do in terms of technology (standardize master data and barcode track and trace, and more use of mobile technologies, control towers, and interoperable systems) and structurally (more private sector, outsourcing, governance changes, and professionalization) to make our supply chains more sustainable. What we need now are real-world lessons on how to implement these efforts and advance client-centric supply chains. The GHSC Summit is an important part of this transformation, so I suggest that next year’s theme be client-centricity, what it means, and how to get there.

Getahun Tefera, Black Lion Hospital at the summit
Getahun Tefera, Black Lion Hospital at the summit

A final note: a shout out to Getahun Tefera, a pharmacist from Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, who paid his own way to the conference and presented a poster on Dagu logistics management information systems’ effect on his hospital pharmacy. Dagu is a stock-management system developed by JSI, and it’s always gratifying to see that our work is helping the people it is intended to benefit. Getahun even included metrics like inventory turns in his analysis! Who says pharmacists don’t understand supply chain management?


Written by Paul Dowling

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