The World Bank, The UK Department for International Development, and USAID recently released the results of a logistics pilot project in Zambia, in which the availability of various medical supplies was improved. This is the first of a three-part series in which I talk with two of the team members and finish with some personal reflections. In this first article in the series, I interview Monique Vledder, senior health specialist at the World Bank and supervisor of the project.
AHL: Could you tell us a bit more about the background of this project? Why was it initiated?
MV: We have been involved in supporting the government to implement malaria prevention programmes like bednet distribution in Zambia since 2005. However, over the course of our programmes we realised that, although the government was quite successful in preventing malaria, the people who still were infected could not get adequate treatment due to a lack of malaria treatment drugs at the rural health centres. Our analyses showed that those drugs were available at the central level and district level; but somehow they did not arrive at the health centres. Clearly, there was an issue with the supply lines between MSL (the central medical store), the districts, and the centres. We partnered with other major donors like the UK and US governments as well as JSI and Crown Agents as implementers, and with MIT to ensure academic support. Our joint analysis pointed towards placing commodity planners at the district level as the most promising option. When we discussed this with the Zambian government, we were given a strong commitment for for a pilot project to try this out.
AHL: So what exactly did the pilot entail?
MV: The pilot included 24 districts, 8 of which were used as controls (continuing the use of the ‘old’ system), and in 16 districts we implemented either of two models. Those 24 districts represent about a quarter of the whole country, so especially for a pilot project we had very good coverage. Model 1 involved the placement of a commodity planner at each of the districts. Their tasks were to facilitate communication with the health centres about commodity needs and levels and to prepare orders to MSL. Once the orders were filled and had arrived at the district warehouse, they would also be responsible for packing and dispatching the orders to the health centres.
Model 2 was very similar to model 1, but in this model the separate orders for the health centres would already be collated at the central level and would arrive pre-packed at the district level; the commodity planner was only responsible for preparing the order and for forwarding the packed order to the health centres.
AHL: And the results?
MV: They were spectacular, especially in the districts that used model 2. For example, availability of the main drugs for artemisin-based combination therapy (ACT) improved from an average of about 50 per cent to nearly 90 per cent. If we would extrapolate this to the whole country, this alone would prevent more than 16,000 deaths a year. But, of course, the effects have been much wider than just ACT; although the commodity planners concentrated on malaria supplies, availability of other supplies like antibiotics and contraceptives has increased as well.
When I started on this project, I did not know much about the logistics side of public health, but these results have made it very clear to me how important supply chain management really is for the people’s health.
AHL: So what do these results mean for other programmes? And perhaps other countries?
MV: Of course you cannot translate the results one-on-one to other programmes or settings, but what this trial has made clear is that a relatively modest investment in supply lines can deliver spectacular results. In most developed countries, supply chain management takes up more than ten per cent of the cost of the supplies themselves; in Zambia this was less than half that percentage. Whether you should aim for a similar proportions as in developed countries remains an open question, but it seems to be clear that a modest increase could lead to greatly improved health outcomes. However, I must say that we have not yet finalised our cost-effectiveness analyses; although it was fairly easy to to quantify the extra costs involved, it was not so easy to calculate cost savings, e.g. in model 2 the cost of labour that was no longer needed for repacking at the district level. Nevertheless, even if the cost savings turn out to be very modest, we expected that the improved access to medication and the resulting lives saved would make it more than worthwhile.
I think it is important in this sense to think of integrated supply lines. Although this project was initiated as part of the malaria support, the focus was on supporting the supply of all essential drugs.The results for other pharmaceuticals as for example antibiotics or contraceptives was positive as well. I think that shows that we could make even more gain if we could move away from the disease-based silos and work on approaches to strengthen an integrated supply chain
AHL: What happened after the trial ended? Are the commodity planners still active?
MV: Yes, they are; and, in fact, the districts that were not included in the trial as well as the model 1 districts were so impressed with the results that they are now requesting the country-wide implementation, and the Ministry of Health now has committed to a phased roll-out across all districts.
AHL: This project involved a large number of partners: besides the World Bank, people from DFID, USAID, JSI, Crown Agents, MIT, and of course the Zambian national and district governments were involved. Was it difficult to coordinate such a big group of actors?
MV: I think we were lucky in that that Zambian government gave us a clear commitment and took ownership of the pilot. What also helped was that we all had fairly clearly defined and complementary roles with a minimum of overlap. Thirdly, sufficient funding for the whole project duration was safeguarded from the start. And finally, monitoring and evaluation were integrated into the trial from the start, making it possible to present a result that could be accepted by all parties. All this meant that we could work very well together with a minimum of conflicts; it also meant that we could draw upon each other’s strengths to get things done.