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Building a better health care chain

For Ananth Iyer, the Susan Bulkeley Butler Chair in Operations Management and director of Purdue’s Global Supply Chain Management Initiative and Dauch Center for the Management of Manufacturing Enterprises, his mission in Sierra Leone is simple.

“It really is the process of getting medicine of the right kind to the right people,” Iyer says. He is part of a team of faculty and students from Purdue and the MIT Zaragoza Logistics Center in Spain that is studying ways to improve the delivery of medication to the more than 5.7 million inhabitants of Sierra Leone. The country is in dire need of improved health care; it has the highest maternal death rate in the world, a high infant mortality rate, and residents have a life expectancy of 39 years for females and 42 years for males.

In April, the country enacted the Free Care Health Initiative, which provides health care and medicine without cost for children under the age of 5 and for pregnant and lactating females. With assistance from the World Health Organization, the Zaragoza and Purdue researchers are collecting data to improve care for those high-risk groups and the population in general.

“Our goal is to take the resources that are provided and improve health care outcomes,” Iyer says. “We need better availability of all kinds of medicines available at hospitals to treat diseases. We need more efficient distribution. If you have a better read on inventory, you can deploy supplies better.

“We are trying to get better forecasting of what is needed, and of who will show up in which hospitals with what kinds of diseases. We also are trying to get a handle on where we can relax some constraints to improve the performance of the system as a whole.”

The Zaragoza/Purdue team has received the cooperation of government and health officials in Sierra Leone, who welcomed a third-party perspective to facilitate improvements in the country’s health care system. The project is up for review next April, and the researchers will need to show how changes have improved outcomes in that time period.

For Iyer, the chance to use his supply chain and logistics expertise to help solve a problem halfway around the globe has been personally and professionally gratifying.

“There is a satisfaction that comes from using an aspect of your academic research that can improve life outcomes,” he says. “Certainly, solving a problem for a company to increase profits is a very important thing. But so is global health.

“The ability to help people keeps us who we are as human beings. Everybody derives joy in getting more successful health outcomes in Africa and around the world.”

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