I found it overwhelming to continue this piece from where we stopped the last time, as I had to dig deeper into the topic, so we would not end up leaving out some crucial parts of the problem when trying to proffer solutions to these challenges through ICT.
One part of this conundrum was to try and do a better job at identifying all the challenges of the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria and then proceed to see how ICT can help to solve these problems. The second part obtains from the first in that I then proceeded to see how ICT is helping to solve these problems in other climes and make healthcare better and improve the lives of their citizens. Let me say again that I was overwhelmed.
To say that we are way behind the world in the progress made in the pharmaceutical industry is an understatement as is obvious from the WHO ranking of the country’s healthcare sector at 187 out of 191 countries and the country ranks a high 15th on the Failed States Index globally. The question we now want to answer is: What can we do? These answers will not be easily found but that wouldn’t stop us from attempting.
Before we start however, there is a need to demystify the acronym ICT of its mysterious meanings and definition as it is now seen as a millennial invention that is just for millennials. Information and Communications Technology refers to an “umbrella term that includes any communication device encompassing radio, television, cellular phones, computers and network hardware and software, satellite systems” that help to relay communicate information. It is said that we are in the jet age also known as the information age. ICT is therefore that device that helps you relay information so that the aphorism that Knowledge is Power now becomes real. It only now makes sense to imagine that the more information you have at your disposal, the better decisions you are able to make and the more efficient a market or an industry becomes or in fact the more efficient your business.
Having said that, we will now try to answer the question which can then be rephrased from the above as saying Can Nigeria’s Pharmaceutical Challenges be solved if Pharmacists and Stakeholders possess and can communicate more information?
The pharmaceutical sector is phased into three broad categories and so are the challenges that contribute to the overall heart-wrenching health care status ranking – Production, Markets and Care. To try and propose a one fit all solution through ICT will not just be making a mistake, it will be proferring no solutions at all and as such the solutions targeted at each of these sub-sectors will be specific to them and proffered one at a time.
For this particular piece, let us start with the sub-sector of least resistance – Markets. The pharmaceutical market in Nigeria by which I refer to the distribution network in the country handling the demand and the supply of medicines and medical products. 54.9% of this market belongs to those who are neither pharmacists or healthcare professionals and about 18% of most drugs bought are counterfeited with that figure rising to as high as 30% for anti-malarials.
How can ICT solve this problem?
The Radio Frequency Identification Technology (RFID) being adopted by NAFDAC is one of the existing examples of solving the counterfeiting problems in the market and this simply entails the consumer confirming the authenticity of a product simply by sending a code to a phone number or by calling a phone number to confirm. At the back end, RFID tags ensure that the integrity of the drug supply chain is more secure by tracking the product path as it moves through the supply chain from manufacturer to distributors to wholesalers to retailers and then the final consumers. Information available to the final consumer helps such consumer to decide whether the purchased drug is then counterfeit or not.
This approach however only guarantees that the consumer is armed with information as to whether the medicine s/he is about to take is counterfeit or not. Is there a way to ensure that the consumer does not even get a counterfeit drug at all or that the consumer does not come in contact with as many counterfeit drugs as s/he used to? Can access to information(ICT) help solve that?
As much as we could go ahead and say Government can make the efforts to ban all unlicensed suppliers and distributors, in the end, most consumers of counterfeit drugs still buy from licensed retail pharmacies who buy from licensed wholesale pharmacies and at times unlicensed wholesalers in the open market. There would be a need to make a business case here as a retail pharmacist would rather prefer to buy from a trusted wholesaler who is unlicensed and offers a cheaper price than a licensed wholesale pharmacist with a higher price.
The catch however is this, Brick and Mortar wholesale pharmacies who have more clients and are robust enough to handle the logistics of delivery will be able to afford retailer-friendly prices, but information about retailers in need of restocking their pharmacies at the point where they need it is crucial to driving that price down. If the source of distribution is clean enough, end users can be guaranteed of original and authentic medicines and medical products.
On the business side, how do we ensure that Pharmacists who go through the rigors of pharmacy schools are the ones in charge of the $1.28 billion that comes in annually through the distribution of drugs. Can access to information (ICT) help solve that too?
The attempt by the FG in recent times to develop a Mega Distribution Center which will then distribute products to regional hubs is one of the steps being taken, but since the initiative took off in 2009, there is still yet to be a headway. My thoughts on that will be to opine that good intentions do not necessarily make bad models work. As we speak, there are pharmacy professionals who are currently stakeholders in the whole distribution chain. What does not exist is the ability to locate those who are in need of medicines for their retail stores and where they are – Information. When we then compare this demand with the statistic of 10 pharmacist per 10,000 Nigerians, what we find is a gap that has to be filled by those who are non-professionals.
With a robust data-backed ICT Infrastructure, Pharmacists can have access to licensed and professional supply of drugs and can then provide the logistics need for the distribution of medicines and medical supplies from these channels to those who need it. Without information however, there is very little that can be done and the vacuum will end up being filled by those who are not trained or equipped to do such at the detriment of our country’s healthcare systems and the overall health of the nation.
All these processes and the infrastructure needed to drive these solutions are embodied in what is called e-marketing and e-commerce and as much as it is currently only obtainable in other markets in the country, the value it could bring to improving the pharmaceutical markets in Nigeria cannot and should not be underestimated.
In the next episode of this article, we would take up pharmacy care and how ICT can literally transform that sub sector too.
Chief Operations Officer, Medrep.ng