Working hand-in-hand: when research with humanitarian impact crosses borders

A decade ago, the renowned NGO Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) and Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) joined forces to see how the former’s operations could be streamlined by the research input of the latter. Médecins sans Frontières has since made great strides in getting medicine more effectively to those in need while RSM continues to show how positive an impact its research can have in the field.

Story by Kevin Titman. Photos by MSF.

A non-profit organisation such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) is faced with a triple challenge, one not made any easier by the extreme conditions in which it often has to work – accurate information management, handling their medical stocks, and maintaining a fluid supply chain to ensure those stocks get to people in need as quickly and smoothly as possible.

With approximately 2,000 stock keeping units to manage, frequent budget restrictions, and a mission that often entails setting up clinics in areas offering little or no infrastructure, this is no small feat. Throw into the mix the fact that the NGO’s medics are frequently working in war-torn countries and one can understand why the smooth running of operations is ultra-important in order to get care to those in desperate need.

The perfect fit

Faced with such a hefty list of challenges, MSF decided to call upon the services of RSM, starting with student involvement in the collaboration in order to analyse how best the organisation’s information management could be improved. ‘An NGO such as ours is not about business or ownership, so a fresh perspective was required,’ comments Anna Eschweiler, operational pharmacist with the international pharmaceutical co-ordination department of MSF. ‘We felt that the ability for students to think outside of the box provided the perfect fit’.

Student involvement has continued since, with MSF submitting a series of project proposals to interested parties. One in particular was taken on by alumna Valerie Valente (BSc Business Administration 2006 and MSc Supply Chain Management 2011) when she was a student. Valerie went on to carry out an internship with the NGO focusing on the key issue of forecasting.

Two more students subsequently joined and extended investigations into MSF’s dataset (as managed at the Amsterdam-based operational centre) to see how best to improve its internal workings.

Research for change

Once the information management part of the collaboration had started to gain pace, researchers from RSM’s Department of Technology and Operations Management then provided more detailed analysis of the NGO’s supply chain and how it could be streamlined to the benefit of all. This covered such vital aspects as stock forecasting, to ensure the speedy dispatch of the required amounts of medication and avoiding over-ordering and therefore potential waste of expired stock.

Dr Jan van Dalen, associate professor of statistics at RSM, explains how this work began: ‘We were lucky in that the MSF HQ is based in Amsterdam, meaning we were able to work close to the source on logistics with the NGO’s decision-makers. Through our research we sought to illustrate the need to apply wholesale change to their data management. In so doing, MSF saw the positive knock-on effect that this would have for carrying out their main mission – getting care and medicine to their patients.’

A fresh approach

Also closely involved in the initiative is Dr Erwin van der Laan, associate professor of logistics and operations management at RSM, for whom the reality of working with an NGO has proven markedly different to that of working with a corporation.

‘Companies invariably have their own information system management processes already in place,’ he observes. ‘MSF, however, were not only open to the idea of overhauling their approach to data collection and treatment but absolutely needed to. That’s where we can came into the picture.’

RSM’s latest studies into operations at MSF, concentrating on the internal and external factors that affect the forecasting and order-planning process, have identified opportunities to improve the NGO’s supply chain. The insights proves invaluable not just to that organisation but also to any non-profit group facing supply challenges. Better forecasting and planning reduces stock-outs, over-stocking, and expiration of goods, which in turn saves time, reduces costs, improves patient care, and may even save lives.

Seeing the results

Analysis of MSF’s operations as conducted by RSM revealed that 22 per cent of all medical items suffered a stock-out at some point during the year; 67.8 per cent were at risk, and 38 per cent risked expiration. Forecast accuracy (including forecasting the consumption of medicine within the actual clinics) was therefore identified as key to improving this situation.

In light of this and other findings, MSF began to overhaul its supply chain from 2016 onwards, to the benefit of two populations in particular, as Anna Eschweiler underlines. ‘Our first duty of care is, of course, to our patients but if we want to deliver an effective service then we need to streamline things as much as possible to help our medics do the vital job that they do. Working hand-in-hand with RSM students and faculty members has helped put us back on the right track.’

More information

This article was first published in RSM Outlook winter 2017 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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