Racing against time to secure essential drugs at hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic

Principal pharmacist Chong Yi San, 41, getting the medications for outpatients at TTSH's pharmacy.
Principal pharmacist Chong Yi San, 41, getting the medications for outpatients at TTSH's pharmacy.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

In March, when countries started to implement lockdowns due to the surging pandemic, the procurement team at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's (TTSH) pharmacy scrambled to secure medicines before exports were disrupted.

Thus began their race against time to avoid medicine shortages and ensure sufficient Covid-19 drugs - not just for TTSH, but for other hospitals as well.

"Even as we placed orders with the vendors, there was no certainty that the drugs would come in, until they reached our doorstep," said Ms Chong Yi Mei, 35, senior pharmacist from healthcare logistics firm Alps who is based in TTSH's pharmacy procurement and supply chain unit.

During the peak of the pandemic, the team had to order four to five times more medicines for symptomatic treatment, such as cough syrup and lozenges, said Ms Chong.

The usage of hand rubs in the hospital also increased by 50 per cent.

TTSH and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases also procured drugs used in Covid-19 treatment for national use at the start of the pandemic.

When hospitals were ramping up intensive care unit (ICU) capacities in April, a neuromuscular blocking drug used during intubation was running low. The procurement team and the authorities consulted ICU clinicians to bring in an alternative drug in time.

The team also had to ensure the hospitals did not run out of surgical-grade hand rub and handwash when the go-to vendor stopped exports. Diversifying the sources and maximising the vendor network were integral in preventing supply disruption, said Ms Chong.

Internally, handwash was prioritised for front liners, while others switched to ordinary soap.

Procurement pharmacists send medicines to patients, but they rarely see the outcomes.

Ms Chong's sister, Ms Chong Yi San, 41, who is a principal pharmacist at TTSH's outpatient pharmacy, said: "(Yi Mei) spent a lot of effort trying to procure Covid-19 medicines. When we read in the papers that an ICU patient recovered and was discharged, it was heartwarming."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2020, with the headline 'Racing against time to secure essential drugs'. Print Edition | Subscribe