The growing importance of traceability in the health care sector

Faulty breast implant scandals, evolutions in the legal framework, counterfeit products and patient safety are all issues that have highlighted the importance of traceability in the health care sector. The Vlerick Healthcare Supply Chain Research Network analysed in which fields the various players in the supply chain can make the greatest profits thanks to a more efficient track-and-trace process. Moreover, the main drivers and obstacles were identified.

What is traceability, also known as track and trace?

In the study traceability is described as:

  • the possibility to follow the forward movement of products at specified points within the entire chain (tracking);
  • the possibility to retroactively trace the location, history (product ID) and storage parameters of products (tracing).

Moreover, a distinction is made between standard and temperature-controlled transport.

Traceability is not equally important for all players

This research involved producers, distributors, logistics service providers and hospitals in Belgium. All parties were convinced of the importance of traceability (8.47 out of 10), but there appears to be a major gap between logistics service providers (9.09) and health care centres (7.38). Professor Brecht Cardoen and researcher Tom Van Steendam also identified major differences between the various health care centres, because some hospitals hardly - or simply don’t - follow up and improve their traceability, while others consider it an important topic.

The main motivators for further optimisation

The study shows that there are two major motivators for the further optimisation of the track-and-trace process. On the one hand, better traceability can increase the quality of both products and services for the customer/patient. On the other, the legal framework is also an important motivator, especially when it comes to the transport and storage of temperature-controlled products. These motivators can be partly explained by the frequent problems encountered when providing the patient with a seamless cold chain.


The main obstacle in all organisations at every level of the chain is the number of partners required from the production unit to the final step, the patient. The complexity of the supply chain in the health care sector often prevents a seamless and optimal track and trace from the production unit to the usage phase. Moreover, the respondents highlighted the importance of communication between the different organisations involved. The communication technologies required may be available on the market, but are often not available within the organisations themselves. That results in communication often occurring only after problems have been encountered, while there is no proactive approach to prevent them. It is therefore an absolute must that the various players in the chain collaborate more efficiently on their communication to ultimately achieve a better control of the track-and-trace processes.

Significant advantages

Based on a combination of prior research (including Jenkins et. al 2007) and fourteen in-depth interviews, the potential advantages were identified and subdivided into four main categories:

1/ (Patient) safety
  • Fewer medication errors (wrong medication administered to patients)
  • Fewer counterfeit products

Specifically for temperature-controlled products:

  • Less damage
  • Fewer expired products
  • Fewer product risks
  • Better product quality
2/ Efficiency and control
  • Better stock management
  • Better asset management
  • Better data management
  • Simplified administration
  • More efficient logistics (ordering, receipt of orders, reduction of lead time)
  • Quicker identification of reverse logistics
3/ Turnover and costs
  • Better customer service
  • Fewer claims and complaints
  • Theft prevention

Specifically for temperature-controlled products:

  • Fewer losses
  • Better reverse logistics
4/ Legislative framework
  • Safety requirements

Specifically for temperature-controlled products:

  • Legal requirements

The impact of these advantages strongly depends on:

  • The position within the supply chain;
  • Whether or not the organisation has a stock management system;
  • Whether the organisation owns the stocks;
  • How sophisticated the currently used systems and technologies are;
  • The degree of integration between the track-and-trace data and the back-office system.


In the past few years, traceability or track and trace has become increasingly important in the health care sector, but its importance differs according to the position in the supply chain. Product quality and legal requirements are the main reasons for further optimising product traceability. While the advantages are significant, problems still occur regularly, mainly with temperature-controlled products. The large number of players in the supply chain and the lack of an efficient (mutual) communication are considered the main barriers to eliminating these problems. However, every player in the chain still has enough reasons to focus on this topic. In conclusion, there is definitely still scope for improvement to guarantee the optimal traceability of a product from the production unit to its use or administration.

Source: Jenkins, J., Mills, P., Maidment, R. & Profit, M. (2007). Pharma Traceability Business Case Report. BRIDGE.

UPDATE: The results of this study date back to the September-December 2012 timeframe. Meanwhile we have noted that health care centres are increasingly making efforts in the field of traceability for medicines and other products in order to achieve their accreditation. As a result, some of the figures mentioned in this article may now be higher.

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