Product diversion in the medicinal supply chain


Recent news about problems at a Finnish nursing home for the elderly has brought to the public, among others, the issue of diversion of drugs from the legal supply chain. The issue are medicines classified as narcotics which have become unaccounted for. While this may just be a just case of forgot documentation in lawful disposal of medicines via pharmacies, the lack of documentation makes it extremely difficult to investigate. This should not be the case. I would recommend implementing the simple and already available barcode and serialization technologies:

  1. Serialized product packages enabling well-controlled and up-to-date inventory.
  2. Smart medicine cabinets only dispensing medicines to authorized and identified personnel.
  3. Standard operating procedures with simple barcode readers and background databases to link the dispensed medicines to identified patients via identified personnel in identified rooms.

The investigation regarding the contents of a single medicine package would then be greatly simplified with a quick database query by quality assurance personnel.

The gray and black markets of diverted medicines

This reminds me of when I first heard of this problem field ten years ago. While I was still a doctoral student working on mobile-phone-based health applications, I had a meeting with an executive from a company providing security services (access control) for hospitals in a 3rd world country. The main problem he discussed on was hospital staff stealing medicines to sell them in the black market: under-the-table in local pharmacies or street market.

In poorer countries, the issue may be any drug, but in developed countries, the opioids seem to be a major issue. Healthcare personnel developing an addiction to opioids is nothing new, but the lure of some ”easy” extra money to augment one’s salary is also a traditional issue.

With serialized codes, the medicine packages found from illegal or gray sources, such as internet pharmacies operating where regulation is lax, can be back-tracked to the original source. This can be used to find the manufacturer, warehouses, logistics, and hospitals or pharmacies involved — exposing the culprits responsible for diversion. For the Marketing Authorization Holder (MAH), being able to prevent the flow of its products to the gray market is an important issue: the correct storage, e.g. cold chain, is not guaranteed and the MAH — the name of which is clearly printed in the package — may well be publicly blamed for any problems.

This does not, however, remove the responsibility of the consumer. If one resorts to shady sources and non-authenticable medicines, one is not only endangering one’s own health but financing criminal activity.

Rivotlin medicine bottle

Photo: Helsinki Police Department, Finland

For the pharmaceutical industry, the need for supply chain control and easy authentication of genuine products from fake are of paramount importance. No brand owner wants its logo and name in public police warnings of diverted or fake products.

Automation helping the healthcare personnel

Automated medicine cabinets and barcode readers can also help the overstretched hospital and nursing home personnel by preventing wrong medicines being applied or wrong patients being treated. Reducing possibilities of human error reduces also the stress of the personnel, just think of a nurse in night shift trying to keep track of medicines with similar-looking names, patients being shifted from room or hospital to another, and calculations of correct doses. Automation is available to help people do their work better and with less stress and strain.

Servicepoint offers services of an experienced full-service packaging, device assembly, machine vision, robotics, and serialization and track & trace automation integration company. In the last few years, Servicepoint has implemented serialization to more than a dozen sites for several manufacturers, our implemented or started projects at customers ranging from Russia to Spain, from Finland to Cyprus. Call us, we can help you!

Servicepoint Oy — the reliable partner for the manufacturing industry

Iiro Jantunen
TkT, Teknologiajohtaja
Servicepoint Kuopio Oy