Heatwaves and extreme weather situations can have a serious impact on public health. We've already seen that human safety is at risk of heatstroke, hurricanes or wildfires sparked by drought, but there's another health hazard that's frequently overlooked: the quality and efficacy of medications that have been exposed to the heat.
In the US alone, 48.4% of the population, close to every second American, takes at least one prescription pill daily, and almost one-quarter takes three or more. Patients rely on medication to maintain their health on a daily basis, but most people give little thought to the possibility that temperature and humidity could make those crucial drugs less effective.
Heat affects more drugs than you realize
Most manufactured drugs are only licensed for storage in temperatures up to 25°C. When the temperature rises above that level, there's a serious risk that drug quality will deteriorate and the medication will lose its potency. Equally, many liquid medications become less effective if they freeze or come close to freezing.
A recent study in the UK found that for every 10°C jump in temperature in a dozen of medications commonly prescribed by primary care physicians, there was an exponential spike in the rate of reaction. Drugs like aspirin, which helps treat heart disease, and diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory frequently used for arthritis and gout, were among the medications most affected by exposure to the heat. Excessive heat also has an adverse impact on emergency medications like benzylpenicillin, used for suspected bacterial meningitis.
Doctors can't risk using compromised emergency drugs, so they need to be confident that they've been stored in ideal conditions when transported and throughout their shelf lives.
The global nature of today's supply chains often mean that medications have to travel even further before they reach their destination, amplifying the risk that they'll be exposed to extreme, damaging temperatures on the way.
Climate change is only making things worse. Countries which never previously had to worry about extreme heat are suddenly seeing mean temperatures well above the historic averages for their regions. Doctors and pharmacists may not have realized the impact this can have on medications - or made any changes to the traditional ways that they transport and store drugs.
For example, the aforementioned UK study measured temperatures in the trunk of a doctor's car and the drug storage cupboard in primary care practices, and talked to local pharmacies about medication storage conditions. The researchers found that during a heatwave, car trunk temperatures averaged over 37°C, and the mean temperature in medical center drug cupboards was over 30°C. None of the pharmacies had air conditioning or kept an internal temperature log.
Thankfully, tech is stepping into the breach. Advanced temperature monitoring systems provide ways to track and protect temperature-sensitive medications and preserve their quality, both in transit and during storage.
Thermo-sensors log temperature changes
Effective temperature monitoring for heat-sensitive medications in transit begins with an advanced thermo-sensor inside the truck or on the package itself.
These sensors can detect fluctuations in temperature and humidity, constantly logging the ambient temperature. Regularly syncing logged data with cloud-based data systems provides stakeholders with the transparency they need to maintain quality control.
When you have up-to-date temperature data, you can make the right transit decisions on the spot. For example, if a truck is traveling through or about to enter a high-temperature area, it's possible to know if and how that's affecting the medications on board.
QR code tracking makes it easy to access temperature data
Gathering data is only half the battle. The crucial other half is to make sure that the data is easy to access and consume. Pharmaceutical, healthcare, and logistics companies combine IoT temperature sensors with QR tracking codes that can be read using a code scanner or smartphone app.
Individuals around the world can quickly sync and consult the data on any cloud-connected device, making it more efficient to track the progress of shipments through transit at any moment - and check whether they were exposed to high temperatures at any point.
Cloud storage also means it's easy to scale storage up or down to accommodate your data needs, and provides peace of mind that all your information is secure.
Data transparency enables better estimates of medication quality
Pharmacists and physicians need accurate temperature and humidity logs for the entire "cold chain," so they can estimate the quality of their medications and decide if and when they are still safe for use.
Although some substances, like insulin and many types of vaccines, are extremely heat sensitive and can't be used if their temperature exceeds a certain point, others are more robust. They might deteriorate faster if they've been exposed to higher temperatures, but they are still effective as long as they are used within a specific time period. For example, aspirin that was exposed to the heat might need to be used within three months instead of a year.
A temperature monitoring system connects IoT sensors, QR code tracking, and backend software to produce automated reports that are far more accurate than manual reports, so professionals can make the right decisions about medication storage.
Alerts increase awareness about temperature changes
Alert templates make it quick to create customized alerts if temperatures reach a warning level, if they are held up in transit, or spend an extended period of time at a certain temperature.
Alerts and notifications are particularly useful for storage situations, where medications can be quickly moved to a different, cooler area.
They are helpful for climates that aren't used to dealing with high ambient temperatures, aren't accustomed to cold storage for medications, and are taken by surprise by extended heatwaves.
Temperature monitoring systems can improve healthcare
Using an effective temperature monitoring system to track changes in temperature and storage conditions is vital for safe drug prescription and use. Combining advanced temperature sensors, QR code tracking abilities, cloud data storage, and customized temperature alerts into an overall temperature monitoring system allows healthcare professionals, pharmaceutical companies, logistics organizations, and patients to feel confident about the quality and condition of life-saving drugs.
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