Delivering Health Services to Women and Children: How Supply Chains Can Accelerate SDG 3

This guest post was written by Kaitlin Christenson, Interim Director, Advocacy and Public Policy, PATH and Ellen T. Tompsett, Senior Program Officer, Reducing Stockouts, Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition

As the excitement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) summit has quieted down, countries are beginning to address the daunting challenge of meeting the ambitious targets and considering how their health systems will need to improve to rise to the challenge. Take, for example, maternal and child health, a major component of SDG 3 to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”

It will be no easy task to meet the targets for this goal, which include drastically reducing global maternal mortality, neonatal mortality, and under-five mortality. We now have an array of effective health products—vaccines, reproductive health supplies, and other lifesaving health commodities—with the potential to help us meet those goals, but no matter how effective, they will not reach the women and children most in need without a well-functioning system to deliver them.

The vital role of the supply chain

Most public health supply chains in use today were established 30 to 40 years ago and are ill-equipped to efficiently deliver larger quantities of health supplies to broader age groups without compromising quality or potency. Vaccines are particularly tricky, as they are biological products that must be kept within a specific temperature range before being administered. Several studies have shown that far too many are exposed to temperatures that can reduce their potency or render them useless by the time they reach remote communities.

But the good news is that next-generation supply chains—those that are professionally managed and designed for optimal efficiency, that deploy and maintain quality equipment, and that are continuously improved using data to inform decisions—can rapidly accelerate delivery of medicines and health supplies and bring us closer to achieving the ambitious maternal and child health goals set by the SDGs. Pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines, for example, could avert more than 11 million child deaths in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 if effectively delivered.

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Supply chains with sufficient refrigeration capacity enabled both new mother Dianne Peter to receive oxytocin, which prevents severe bleeding after she had given birth, and her new baby to receive lifesaving immunizations from a clinic in Baniantwe, Ghana. Photo: PATH/Evelyn Hockstein

The way forward

As maternal and child health advocates, how can we support the adoption of next-generation supply chains so that products successfully reach the women and children who most urgently need them?

First, we need to acknowledge supply chains as a significant part of the conversation about how to reach the targets for SDG 3. Effective supply chains are the backbone of strong health systems, and we need to raise their visibility in discussions about meeting the SDGs.

Second, we should champion transformative changes that may fundamentally shift the way health supplies are delivered within countries. Rather than focusing on operating supply chains themselves, countries should see themselves as health system stewards that harness needed expertise and resources from wherever it can be most efficiently provided. In some cases, this may mean outsourcing supply chain functions to third-party providers. In other cases, countries may achieve efficiencies by integrating multiple supply chains. Countries are the ultimate stewards of their own supply chains, and we can do a better job of strengthening countries in that role.

Third, we should acknowledge that supply chain managers, often working in isolation, are frequently unaware of or have limited access to training resources. As new training programs are developed, advocates can use tools such as LAPTOP to raise awareness of supply chain management training opportunities.

Lastly, we can help countries focus on building stronger data systems that can be used for decision-making. With more visible data, supply chain leaders can better coordinate staff and maintenance needs, improve ordering efficiency, grow markets for health products, and even make the business case to manufacturers to lower the price of medications.

Taking action to strengthen health supply chains

Improving supply chains is not only a job for logisticians or technical managers. Building next-generation supply chains will require contributions from country policymakers, donors, and civil society to bolster effective stewardship of the health system toward more positive health outcomes.

Let’s support countries to develop and prioritize national health supply chain strategies, because ultimately, we cannot achieve the SGDs without supply chains that reliably order, store, transport, and deliver medicines, vaccines, and health supplies to those that need them.

Read the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition’s paper on health system stewardship here.

Learn more about PATH’s work in advocacy for stronger immunization supply chains here.