From cold chain to chemical vaults: The critical role of specialized handling in medical product and pharmaceutical supply chain

Specialized handling capabilities within the healthcare supply chain, such as cold storage and chemical vaults, are essential to safeguarding the potency and efficacy of life-saving medicine and medical products. Demand for specialized handling capabilities is increasing, driven by advances in biopharmaceuticals, the need for global vaccine distribution, precision medicine, research requirements and evolving healthcare delivery models.

Thousands of medical products, such as vaccines, insulin, biopharmaceuticals, penicillin, IV solutions, laboratory products and medical devices, arrive from manufacturers to distribution centers (DCs) – often with strict storage and shipping conditions to maintain their integrity.

For healthcare providers, choosing a trusted distribution partner with robust specialized handling capabilities means that vaccines can be administered with confidence, lab diagnostic tests are reliable, and medical treatments are safe and effective. 

DCs across Cardinal Health’s medical product and pharmaceutical distribution networks have hundreds of thousands of square feet dedicated to infrastructure for specialized handling. This includes chemical vaults used to store flammable and combustible liquids and temperature-controlled storage rooms, such as:

  • ambient rooms kept at 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F),
  • walk-in refrigeration cooled to 2°C to 8°C (36°F to 47°F) and
  • freezers that are kept at -15°C to -25°C (5°F to -13°F).

Deep and ultra frozen specialized storage (-40°C/-40°F to -80°C/-112°F), as well as cryogenic freezer (-125°C/-193°Fto -192°C/-314°F) capabilities used to store vaccines, are also available throughout our nationwide distribution network.

Cardinal Health’s 25 DCs dedicated to pharmaceutical distribution support next day deliveries of products with specialized handling needs. This is also true for our U.S. Medical Products and Distribution (U.S. MPD) business, as 28 of our 34 DCs support specialized handling. This market coverage maximizes the business’s ability for next-day deliveries of products with unique handling needs. Earlier this year, U.S. MPD opened a 15,000-square-foot chemical vault, a 5,000-square-foot cool room and a 1,500-square-foot freezer in its new Ohio Valley DC.

Upholding confidence in specialized handling

When it comes to medical products with specialized handling needs like chemical vaults or cold chain (where products require temperature-controlled storage and transport), Cardinal Health has earned the trust of customers. That trust stems from our deep expertise in quality assurance and regulatory compliance and our robust market coverage that ensures customers can get the products they need when they need them.

As Director of Global Logistics, Quality & Regulatory Affairs for Cardinal Health’s medical and pharmaceutical product distribution, Keegan Chamberlain knows both professionally and personally why this trust is so important. When his daughter, Adelyn, was born, she experienced renal failure and required nightly dialysis until a kidney transplant was found.

“We were taught how to administer a renal dialysis solution at home so that we could finally leave the hospital with Adelyn,” said Chamberlain. Once Adelyn was home, a driver picked up a pallet of renal dialysis solution (which had to be maintained at a temperature of 20°C to 25°C/68°F to 77°F) from a Cardinal Health distribution center and delivered it to Chamberlain’s home every week.

“Cardinal Health’s specialized handling capabilities were absolutely critical to our daughter’s health,” Chamberlain said. “Our experience has given my role supporting quality and regulatory compliance across the organization special meaning.”

For medical product distribution, precision and scale matters

“Cardinal Health can be a single source of medical products for all our customers’ needs,” said James Sembrot, SVP, Supply Chain for U.S. MPD. “We handle all of the complexity so that our customers don’t have to – which means they can focus more of their time on patient care.”

As the business continues to bring new offerings to customers, our quality team is constantly adding those new products to their catalogue – carefully evaluating every item for unique handling requirements. Information about each product, such as storage condition codes, hazardous storage specifications and transportation regulations, is shared electronically across the distribution network where quality control procedures and specialized handling processes are applied consistently. 

Whether the product is sensitive to light or temperature, flammable, corrosive, contains alcohol, aerosol, or needs to remain upright, we pay meticulous attention to detail to protect product integrity, as well as the safety of professionals who handle them. If information on a label is vague or missing details, members of the quality team proactively contact suppliers to ensure product codes are accurate and comprehensive.

“With hundreds of thousands of medical products in our catalogue and growing, we continue to invest in our specialized handling capabilities,” said Adam Farmer, VP, Supply Chain Flow & Strategy, U.S. MPD. “We’re proud of our market coverage and ability to respond to our customers’ needs and to increasing demand.”

Enhanced security measures are also in place to protect employees. Chemical vaults that store flammable products are separated from the rest of the warehouse and include special fire-resistant racking and air-exchange units to improve air quality.

“Customers want to know their medical products distributor is in good standing with every licensing and regulatory body,” said Sembrot. “Cardinal Health adheres to strict quality and safety standards while constantly seeking ways to improve efficiency, reduce risks and help our customers save on costs.”

One example of cost savings is realized when our facilities receive full cases of products with hazardous designations from manufacturers and then break them down into smaller units for distribution. Through this process, teams ensure Department of Transportation (DOT) regulatory exceptions for shipping smaller quantities of certain hazardous products are applied, which means they can pass shipping and handling fee savings to customers.

“Though other distributors may only be able to ship full cases of product, Cardinal Health has the regulatory knowledge and the scale to ship products in lower units of measure for our customers,” said Farmer. “In other words, this means customers only pay for the supplies they need and save on specialized handling fees.”

U.S. MPD continues to invest in its specialized handling infrastructure and supply chain capacity. For example, we’ve enhanced back-up generators in our DCs and have installed alarm-enabled temperature monitors that automatically send signals if temperatures fall outside of set ranges. For cold chain deliveries, we continue to advance the use of containers and cooling agents so if transport is disrupted, products can remain cold for up to 48 hours.

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