Air Logistics

Trusted partners key to supply chain for humanitarian aid


This is an excerpt from Medically Necessary, a health care supply chain newsletterSubscribe here.

The task: The recent surge of COVID-19 cases in India led to shortages of drugs, personal protective equipment and oxygen. The Indian government and health care providers reached out to organizations in the United States for help.

Daily COVID-19 cases in India peaked at about 400,000 in early May. The U.S. government has sent supplies worth $100 million to India, including drugs, oxygen and test kits. Many private companies have also donated supplies.

But getting those products to patients who need them requires an enormous amount of cooperation. Humanitarian aid leaders say working with trusted partners in the destination country is key.  

Step one in the health care supply chain for humanitarian aid is gathering information about what patients need, says Thomas Tighe, CEO of the nonprofit health care distributor Direct Relief.

“We do, basically, a market analysis. The commercial companies, their market analysis is, ‘What’s the commercial demand?’ … They don’t go looking for: ‘Who’s not going to buy our product?’” he told FreightWaves. “That’s where we start. … But we have to do it precisely.”

In May, Direct Relief shipped more than 3,500 oxygen concentrators on two flights donated by FedEx to a hospital system in India.

Often, those on-the-ground needs assessments come from partners that aid organizations already have a relationship with, according to Eric Cioe-Peña, director of the Center for Global Health at Northwell Health, a hospital system based in New York. 

“You really can’t just give money or give supplies blindly. It’s important to have these relationships, to know where the supplies are going, to know the information on the ground,” he told FreightWaves.

Northwell and the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin recently coordinated the delivery of 1,000 oxygen concentrators to health care providers in India.

For the recent shipments to India, Direct Relief communicated with Tata Memorial Hospital, a large health system based in Mumbai the organization had worked with previously, to determine what to send. 

“It’s roughly akin to plugging into Kaiser. … They have a preestablished network. It’s not sending into a black hole,” he said. “They have far better current information than anyone from outside could.” 

Northwell received requests for supplies from the Indian Ministry of Health. The organization also worked with the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin to identify specific health care providers that needed supplies.

Both Direct Relief and Northwell say they only send materials health care providers are requesting to avoid clogging up logistics networks. 

In 2010, Cioe-Peña went to Haiti to help with relief efforts after an earthquake. He remembers seeing lots of unneeded supplies, and he strives to make sure his organization doesn’t repeat those mistakes.

“Having 15,000 cans of corn is really a logistical problem for NGOs that are trying to get supplies that are actually needed,” he said.  

Gathering supplies: Organizations like Direct Relief or Northwell Health can use several different strategies to gather supplies. 

That includes asking for-profit companies to donate products or services, using the inventory they have on hand or simply using their privileged access to medical supplies to speed up the process.

The Indian Ministry of Health asked Northwell for help buying oxygen concentrators. As a large health system with an existing vendor relationship, Cioe-Peña said Northwell could issue a purchase order right away.

“We fronted the money,” Cioe-Peña said. “We were able to get them in the warehouse ready to be sent to India before the Indian government … had even figured out how to pay us.”

Direct Relief often leans…



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