How Distributors Can Help Address Challenges in Access to Specialty DrugsJillian Yang
There are a variety of challenges that patients may face when accessing medication. In fact, a 2019 study on medication access identified 17 distinct barriers that patients must overcome, including costs, transportation, and geographical characteristics that can create different accessibility issues for patients based in rural areas versus those in urban areas.
These barriers to medication access can take a toll on patients and providers, who may already find themselves experiencing or attending to critical healthcare needs.
Greater still are the challenges to medication access for patients seeking access to specialty drugs, which commonly require unique handling, such as cold storage and transportation; therapy-specific administration, such as injection or infusion; and often have complex regimens.
Distributors play an integral role in ensuring patients can quickly and easily access the therapies that they need by alleviating some of the burdens and hurdles that patients and providers face through customer support, robust distribution networks, real-time data insights, and creative solutions for urgent requests.
Let’s take a closer look at specialty drugs and some of the ways that distributors are helping patients more easily access these medications.
What is a specialty drug?
The University of Michigan Health System defines specialty medications as therapies that “are used to treat patients with complex and/or rare diseases; have special dosage, storage, handling, and administration requirements; and require high touch patient care and monitoring services (eg, transplant, oncology, MS, hepatitis).” Due to these and other factors, specialty drugs are high-cost medications, typically priced at $1,000 or more per month.
Specialty medications can be highly effective in treating chronic conditions like cancer, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. The effectiveness of specialty medication is a key factor in the rise of their approval and usage: in 2021, roughly 80% of the FDA’s new drug approvals were specialty drugs, and specialty drugs accounted for more than 40% of outpatient prescription revenues.
Why are specialty drugs more challenging to access than non-specialty drugs?
According to an RxBenefits survey conducted in 2021, almost half of patients living in the U.S. (49%) have experienced challenges accessing specialty medications. Though cost was the leading factor reported among patients, other challenges can include supply-chain logistics, reimbursements from payers, and even the unpredictability of weather — all of which can make it harder to get specialty medications into the hands of patients.
How can distributors help address challenges in access to specialty drugs?
Distributors that have a patient-first mentality and take a customer-centric approach can dramatically improve accessibility to specialty drugs. A key component of outstanding customer service is availability.
Distributors can establish smooth access to specialty drugs by staffing their customer service lines with live representatives who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. (Live customer service is particularly important over the holidays, as doctors report a spike in hospitalizations during these periods.)
Distributors can further secure timely access to specialty drugs by ensuring their service representatives are highly trained and have the expertise to quickly assess the logistics and distribution strategies that meet a provider’s (often urgent) specialty medication requests.
Common challenges and solutions that distributors can train their customer service staff on include:
- Transportation challenges, e.g. airline freight transport operations are often working with skeleton crews and close early on holidays, thus ground transportation or local courier may be more efficient modes of transport.
- Partnership coordination, e.g. knowing how to most effectively utilize partnerships — including with specialty pharmacies, manufacturers, and other entities — to provide the prompt delivery of specialty drugs.
- Emergency protocols, e.g. accessing resources and support in the event of national emergencies, including severe weather and disasters, to ensure patients receive the therapies they need when they need them.
Extensive Distribution Networks
Urgent transport of specialty medication is vital to getting patients the therapies they need, especially in scenarios where a patient’s life may be at risk. Same-day delivery, or better, is also crucial for patients that must adhere to the complex and highly specific regimens they must follow when administering their specialty drugs.
For example, the starting regimens for many specialty drugs require multiple doses to be administered at precise times, typically a specific number of days or weeks apart. If a dose is missed, it could result in a patient having to restart the regimen of treatment, wasting the previously administered doses, increasing costs, and extending the patient’s treatment and healing time.
Thus, it is critical to patients’ care that distributors’ networks are vast enough to deliver specialty medications within a matter of hours.
To achieve this, distributors must have a sufficient number of distribution centers — locations from which the specialty drugs can be sourced and transported — that are geographically broad enough to provide rapid delivery across the country.
Having an extensive network of distribution centers helps patients better access the specialty drugs they need by:
- Ensuring same-day, emergency (within hours), and after-hours delivery of specialty medications.
- Providing nationwide service to hospitals and other providers.
- Reducing product waste, associated costs, and patient treatment times.
- Meeting the complex distribution requirements for a variety of manufacturers.
Surges in the request for a specific medication, as well as medication stockpiling, can lead to drug shortages and inequitable or reduced access to medication.
For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, pharmacies reported shortages of even the most common drugs, such as acetaminophen. And according to a report published by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, the surge in demand for certain medications led to severe shortages of 29 of the 40 drugs critical to treating COVID-19 patients.
Thus it is crucial to the drug supply chain that medication distributors know exactly how much medication they have on hand, and in which of their distribution centers these specific quantities are located.
Distributors can safeguard against drug shortages and help increase patient access to specialty medications by closely monitoring their supply-chain inventory. They do this through a strict adherence to complete inventory documentation and storage site audits, and by providing real-time tracking of orders of specialty medication, from initiation through final delivery.
Moreover, from their position at the center of the supply chain, distributors have data from both upstream and downstream partners. This data can provide a clearer picture of customers’ needs and more meaningful insights around supply-chain realities that can increase distribution efficiency, lower costs, and benefit the healthcare system overall.
BioCareSD is proud to serve as a leader in specialty distribution for more than 40 years. We strive every day to deliver unparalleled service to our patients and partners and, most importantly, to provide patients across the country with fast and easy access to life-saving medications. To learn more about partnering with BioCareSD, please contact us here.