By: Charlie Fletcher
In the monumental effort to combat the novel coronavirus 2019, better known as COVID-19, the pharmaceutical industry churned out more than 10 billion doses of vaccines. Additionally, big pharma companies are at work producing pills and other lifesaving medicines aimed at treating the virus and its variants.
However, this mass mobilization of pharmaceutical production has not occurred in a vacuum. This rapid utilization of resources will have an impact on environments, economies, and people. No one is begrudging the important and often life-saving work of pharmacology throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but if sustainable solutions are to be possible in the future, we must prepare our pharmaceutical infrastructure now.
By downsizing and localizing big pharma efforts, we can reduce the negative impacts of medicine production while enhancing its efficiency. But first, understand the impact of big pharma on our world.
The Impact of Big Pharma
Wherever mass production occurs, there are bound to be waste and pollution issues. This has long been the case with the pharmaceutical industry.
Before COVID-19 was discovered, the industry was already being forced to recognize its massive effect on ecosystems around the globe. From natural environments to residential ones, poorly handled drugs have become a problem that all kinds of communities now face. These are some of the major environmental concerns arising from big pharma:
- Carbon emissions from pharmaceutical production outpace automotive manufacturing.
- Biology-altering drugs have been found even in treated drinking water.
- Waste and spoilage contribute to costs and pollution.
With negatives like these impacting institutions, ecosystems, and individuals all over the world, the pharmacology industry must evaluate its role in supporting a sustainable infrastructure for drug dispensation and management. This means building the kinds of supply chains and networks that incorporate sustainable practices at every step.
Sustainability isn’t just about the environment. It consists of supportive practices that cause no harm to people and economies over time, as well. That said, it is in the pharmacology industry’s best interests to downsize and localize as it produces a new and sustainable system.
How Downsizing Supports Sustainable Pharmacology
To build a comprehensive, sustainable pharmacology infrastructure, communities need the checks and balances of an integrated system. This means downsizing big pharma’s top-down approach to medicine and basing it within communities. A horizontal and localized system that uses the data from pharmacy-patient interactions can fuel a more efficient industry.
This is evidenced in one example of a pharmacy student designing sustainable packaging after overhearing patient complaints surrounding all the plastic waste. Melinda Su-En Lee co-founded Parcel Health to provide sustainable workarounds. However, this took the input and feedback of community partners at the patient and pharmacy levels. Sustainable pharmacology solutions like this come from downsized thinking, a micro view of an industry too big to fix all at once.
Building these sustainable solutions entails incorporating the stages of effective design thinking into pharmacology. A partitioned, horizontal system in which community players collaborate will allow for more empathy, innovation, and testing throughout a market to reduce pollution and waste. That’s because such an approach garners feedback, ideas, and problem-solving.
Breaking down big pharma to its smallest points helps us to see areas of improvement in sustainable pharmacology. From the supply chain to the pharmacy, an atomized and localized approach to clean practices stand to make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time. Additionally, downsizing in this manner creates rather than eliminates interesting career opportunities in the field of public health.
That’s because sustainable pharmacology is most possible with comprehensive, simplified systems that change and create roles within the work. For example, water treatment operators are needed in every community to study and prevent pollution from pharmaceuticals in the water system. Meanwhile, information systems specialists keep pharmaceuticals up-to-date on everything from emissions to equipment performance.
The following are just a few examples of how a downsized and localized big pharma industry can revolutionize sustainability practices in medicine.
First, localized pharmaceutical operations have immense potential when it comes to mitigating carbon emissions. There is little sense in the fact that despite being 28% smaller than the automotive industry big pharma pollutes 13% more. These are emissions that are created by mass industrial practices overseas. Medicines are then distributed around the world at a high cost of fuel and pollution.
In the future, small-scale, localized pharmaceutical manufacturing processes can serve communities with much less carbon output. Advances in manufacturing procedures like 3D printing are revolutionizing how we make everything from homes to medicines. With the help of information systems providing real-time supply and demand information, pharmaceutical companies can coordinate with partners with more transparency and efficiency than ever. This means less waste and pollution across the board.
Enabling Safe Disposal
Then, mass-produced medicine needs to answer for the disposal problems that are harming ecosystems in many regions. Acetaminophen, for example, was found in landfills at concentrations of 117,000 ng/L. Meanwhile, antibiotics pollute our water systems and threaten our ability to fight illnesses as a population.
To solve these problems, big pharma has to localize education and support powerful take-back programs and anti-pollution measures within communities. This means empowering pharmacies as advocates for sustainability through smart workplace practices.
All this starts with education. First, big pharma has to disseminate antibiotics numbers and responsible prescription standards to care physicians. This information then has to be communicated to patients with the help of pharmacies. At the pharmacy level, resources and education must be provided to patients, informing them on proper disposal standards and allowing them to bring in unused medicines for safe disposal. So much of pharmacological sustainability depends on the education of the populace, so invest in these necessary resources.
Embracing Digital Solutions
To achieve greater success in making patients, pharmacies, and pharmaceutical companies more sustainable, more digital solutions will need to be integrated across the industry. Data drives efficiency through transparency. From here, businesses can employ insights as actionable strategies for improving sustainability.
Fortunately, new technologies make it easy for each partner in a sustainable pharmacology supply chain to track and explore their metrics. The Internet of Things (IoT) represents limitless options for connecting smart sensors and modeling equipment and fleet data. By adopting smart systems like these, local pharmacies gain the ability to complete predictive maintenance on equipment and streamline practices for cleaner business.
Then, patient portal tools and other pharmacology platforms are helping serve individual patients with unprecedented efficiency. By using these tools, individuals take more control over their care. In turn, pharmacies gain the data they need to support a better patient experience. If pharmaceutical companies can ensure that these tools are powered by renewable energy, then the benefits offered by data can revolutionize industry sustainability.
A Smaller, Local, and Sustainable Pharmacology Industry
Big pharma makes a difference in global health. However, the trade-off is sustainability issues. But what if we could have the best of both worlds? By downsizing the industry into connected, data-powered community partners, a future of cheaper, cleaner care could result.
Already, communities around the globe practice these partnerships to some degree. However, advancing technology paired with community-based pharmacology can mean a healthier future for everyone. Understand the benefits of a smaller, local, and more sustainable industry and explore what it could mean for you.