April 18, 2019

On the Road Again: Transporting Donated Organs

Written by Garret Weigel | Supply Chain

In the past year, at least 3,182 organ transplants took place. To achieve this, an amazing feat had to happen: the organs had to be transported from donors to patients, which involved careful logistical effort, from harvest to successful transplant.


More than 125 million people have registered as organ donors, but only about three of every 1,000 actually become donors when they die. This small percentage is largely due to their age, the health of the particular organ, and their utility for the patient. But the list of those requiring donated organs is longer than the list of both those who are available to donate and organs that are viable for transplant.


The Critical Organ-Transplant Supply Chain

Remarkably, organs are donated and transplanted into another human being to help that person live a longer and healthy life. But this process relies heavily on a supply chain that is comparable to no other. It must be agile in every sense of the word. It also must be rapid and ready to change course based on distance, weather, available transportation assets, and most importantly, the organ itself.


For every organ donation, time is a critical and controlling factor. Ordinarily, an organ transplant coordination team has prearranged relationships with transporters that play various roles in the end-to-end supply chain of moving organs from one person to another. This transportation relies on multiple modes of transport, such as helicopters, fixed-wing aircrafts (usually from a small and private fleet), and various types of ground vehicles.


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Organs survive for different amounts of time before they must be transplanted. A liver can be preserved for between 12 and 18 hours. A pancreas can be preserved for between eight and 12 hours. Intestines can be preserved for about eight hours. Kidneys – the most common organ transplanted – can be preserved for between 24 and 48 hours. Each one is flushed free of fluids when removed and then placed into a special preservative solution that maintains the organ as ice-cold. It is then placed in a sterile container, packed with ice, and delivered to a transplant center.


Value-Added Transport Teams

Whoever is coordinating the transport has to deal with many factors: Where is the organ coming from? Where is it going to? What's the weather in that particular route? What are the various modes of transport that need to be incorporated? What organ is being transported and how much time do we have before it absolutely must be at the transplant center? The answers to such questions drive specific decisions regarding the organ’s supply chain. The entire process depends on trusted partners who are part of the entire team effort.


For example, REVA is a medical transporter that specializes in organ transports. Their organ services cover the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Region 3 that includes six states in the Southeast, in addition to Puerto Rico. They have a fleet of helicopters, Learjets, and other fixed-wing aircraft that work with their ground medical and flight crews. Their aircrafts cover the North American continent, the Caribbean basin, Central and South America, throughout Europe, and other international locations.


reva air ambulance

A airplane part of the REVA fleet. In addition to organ transplants, REVA also carries patients in dire medial need. Source: https://www.flyreva.com/


As REVA explains on their website, organs require oxygen because human tissue decays without it. The longer it goes without oxygen, the greater the damage; once damaged, the organ becomes unsuitable for transplant.


Survival Flight is another company that works with the University of Michigan Health System. Like REVA, they have helicopters and small, fixed-wing aircraft that coordinate to make the organ journey complete. They work collaboratively with the team of physicians who know firsthand what is required, given the type and time sensitivity of that particular organ.


Typically, air transport for an ordinary medical emergency or for moving a patient from one location to another is 120 minutes. For organ donations, the time from the order for organs to be transported is generally about 90 minutes.


New Hope and New Life

The entire process of organ transport wouldn’t be successful without strong supply chain visibility and control. It also requires technology to monitor and measure the steps in the process. Since human life is involved, heavy surveillance is paramount.


As transportation technologies such as telematics and remote monitoring becomes more advanced and available, it's likely that the supply chain process of organ transplants will also improve. In fact, the same technologies that enable visibility and control for perishables and other temperature-sensitive and time-sensitive cargo will benefit organ transport.


It’s clear that organ transplants face an entirely new frontier as transportation and supply chain technology advances. More specifically, technologies that enable real-time monitoring of the shipment as well as the actual temperature of the shipment will provide information and therefore confidence that the product is safe to the team.


Organ transplantation gives new life and hope to many through the miracle of modern medicine. Transporting those organs, along with the new technology that will support such a process, is part of that new life and hope as well.


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