Large business organizations know that supply chains are critical to their success or failure. If products are unavailable, customers will go to a competitor, and profits decline. Public health supply chains don’t have a bottom line to consider, but their services are more critical than driving home a profit; people’s lives depend on them and when supply chains falter, the health impact can be devastating. Medicines, contraceptives, and other health supplies must be available when and where people need them.
In contrast to private sector companies, ministries of health in developing countries are typically not structured to include a director who focuses solely on the supply chain, and who is placed in the top leadership of the organization. This can cause supply chain problems to be poorly understood, underrepresented, or just lost when other issues are deemed more important.
If we are to bend the curve of health improvement, the status of supply chain issues must be elevated with dedicated, professional supply chain management (SCM) staff who can effectively advocate at the highest levels. This could mean creating a standalone directorate for supply chain management, or giving representatives from the logistics management unit a seat at high-level meetings on a regular basis.
When decision-makers can interact directly with professional supply chain leaders, who are closely involved in day-to-day logistics operations, SCM issues become more visible and can be resolved faster. Public health supply chains are large, complicated organizations that require a core of trained professionals to execute the technical tasks that ensure a continuous product flow to health facilities. These tasks may relate to quantification, procurement, distribution, or logistics management information systems, to name a few key SCM areas.
The traditional model in which ministry staff and health workers are trained to perform SCM duties has some inherent problems; for health workers, it takes focus away from patient care, and for ministry staff, it is necessary (and costly) to continually retrain staff because their SCM duties may be peripheral to their positions.
With professional SCM personnel and a supportive policy environment, failing supply chains can be turned around. In recent years, John Snow, Inc. (JSI) and other organizations have been working on a number of activities that promote the professionalization of public health supply chain staff. Pre-service training (PST) is a promising practice that brings SCM training into universities and ensures a new crop of skilled logisticians every year. Over the years, JSI has encouraged countries to establish logistics management units with dedicated SCM staff, a concept that has proven itself as a successful approach to overcoming certain supply chain challenges.
The International Association of Public Health Logisticians (IAPHL), now with over 6,500 members, is a professional association initiated over 12 years ago by the JSI-managed USAID | DELIVER PROJECT. IAPHL offers life-long learning and access to a network of SCM professionals. To raise awareness and promote the importance of professionalizing SCM in public-sector supply chains, IAPHL collaborates closely with People that Deliver (PtD), a global partnership of organizations focusing on professionalization of supply chain personnel. PtD advocates for a systematic approach to human resources (HR) for SCM at the global and local level.
As country governments plan for the next decade of health programs, might it be wise to consider what works well for the private sector? Elevating the role of SCM and making a chair available at the top of the organization will strengthen supply chain leadership; professionalizing SCM personnel will strengthen supply chain operations at all levels.
Walter Proper currently is the Director of Field Support for the Advancing Partners and Communities project managed by JSI. Most recently he held the position of Director, Public Health Task Order on the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT. He served for 7 ½ years as the Zambia country director for the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT, SCMS, and JSI Logistics Services projects. He has been working on improving public health systems for more than twenty five years. In this endeavor, he has worked extensively in the areas of HIV & AIDS, Reproductive Health, TB, Malaria and Essential Medicine Systems improvement. His work experience includes more than 25 years as senior manager and supervisor of multicultural teams; more than 30 years as a skilled capacity building and organization development advisor/facilitator; more than 25 years as a skilled public health logistician, and 30 years extensive experience in program and strategic planning, including collaborating and partnering with governments, NGOS, donors, and academic institutions. He has also presented on Supply Chain at international forums, including conducting courses for international organizations such as GFATM and the World Bank as well as for graduate school programs at George Washington, Columbia, Boston University and Tulane. Mr. Proper has direct work experience in more than 30 countries.. He has been an early member of IAPHL and serves on the IAPHL Advisory Group.