IoT technology's role in pharmaceutical shipping
Pharmaceutical shipping is a particularly compelling application of IoT technologies because of the special challenges and stringent regulations involved. Pharmaceuticals have special requirements with regard to temperature, making precise control critical during transport. An increasing array of pharmaceutical products requires cold chain transport, including all vaccines, many drugs and a significant proportion of biological samples and diagnostic tools.
Most vaccines require storage temperatures of 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit and lose potency or physically change after exposure to excess heat, cold or if they are left out too long. Over the last 20 years or so, new vaccines have emerged with different temperature requirements that make their storage even more complex. The potency of most vaccines can be affected by heat during transport or storage. In many cases, vaccines that are shipped to third-world countries are rendered useless due to heat exposure. Patients who have been injected with spoiled vaccines are actually put at greater risk, thinking that they have been immunized when they have not. Some vaccines are more sensitive to heat than others.
Heat is not the only environmental condition that can affect these types of medications. A number of vaccines must also never reach freezing temperatures, especially those that use adjuvants such as aluminum. According to the World Health Organization, between 75% and 100% of vaccine shipments are exposed to freezing temperatures. When a vaccine is damaged by freezing, its loss of potency is permanent and cannot be restored.
These requirements are supported by comprehensive, often global, regulations governing the handling, shipping and packaging of medical products. Deviation from temperature, light, humidity and other prescribed conditions can result in significant fines for noncompliance in addition to the loss of effectiveness of the products. This challenge is especially acute in small or personal shipments from a doctor or medical facility to one specific patient. Depending on the distance, the shipment might travel via several transport modes handled by different logistics companies, including small companies or independent contractors during the last-mile segment of the shipment. It is especially difficult and important to ensure and record the correct temperature when a shipment is handed off from company to company or from mode to mode.
The addition of a smart sensor tracking device enables the shipment itself to provide visibility into its whereabouts and environmental condition. The key benefit of always-on, real-time data is that it validates the unbroken integrity of proper temperature control from point of origin to destination or patient. Smart IoT devices continuously log data and transmit it via a cloud-connected gateway to enable shipper and logistics partners to make decisions while the shipment is in transit and save time from having to download the information after it has reached its destination. Power requirements can be low, as the devices can communicate via Bluetooth or another low-power network with cloud-connected gateways on a truck, shipping container or other conveyance. The gateways collect and process raw data compiled into actionable reports or send alert notifications to the carrier and its partners.
Regardless of transportation mode or carrier, adding real-time visibility into individual pallet or package shipments using IoT technology allows shippers and customers alike to monitor the location, condition and predicted arrival time of important and sensitive cargo such as pharmaceuticals. When shared among supply chain partners, this information empowers collaboration that helps improve shipment efficiency, optimize operations, lower costs and ultimately provide superior customer service.
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