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From cold chain to chemical vaults: The critical role of specialized handling in medical product and pharmaceutical supply chain

Specialized handling capabilities within the healthcare supply chain, such as cold storage and chemical vaults, are essential to safeguarding the potency and efficacy of life-saving medicine and medical products. Demand for specialized handling capabilities is increasing, driven by advances in biopharmaceuticals, the need for global vaccine distribution, precision medicine, research requirements and evolving healthcare delivery models.

Thousands of medical products, such as vaccines, insulin, biopharmaceuticals, penicillin, IV solutions, laboratory products and medical devices, arrive from manufacturers to distribution centers (DCs) – often with strict storage and shipping conditions to maintain their integrity.

For healthcare providers, choosing a trusted distribution partner with robust specialized handling capabilities means that vaccines can be administered with confidence, lab diagnostic tests are reliable, and medical treatments are safe and effective. 

DCs across Cardinal Health’s medical product and pharmaceutical distribution networks have hundreds of thousands of square feet dedicated to infrastructure for specialized handling. This includes chemical vaults used to store flammable and combustible liquids and temperature-controlled storage rooms, such as:

  • ambient rooms kept at 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F),
  • walk-in refrigeration cooled to 2°C to 8°C (36°F to 47°F) and
  • freezers that are kept at -15°C to -25°C (5°F to -13°F).

Deep and ultra frozen specialized storage (-40°C/-40°F to -80°C/-112°F), as well as cryogenic freezer (-125°C/-193°Fto -192°C/-314°F) capabilities used to store vaccines, are also available throughout our nationwide distribution network.

Cardinal Health’s 25 DCs dedicated to pharmaceutical distribution support next day deliveries of products with specialized handling needs. This is also true for our U.S. Medical Products and Distribution (U.S. MPD) business, as 28 of our 34 DCs support specialized handling. This market coverage maximizes the business’s ability for next-day deliveries of products with unique handling needs. Earlier this year, U.S. MPD opened a 15,000-square-foot chemical vault, a 5,000-square-foot cool room and a 1,500-square-foot freezer in its new Ohio Valley DC.

Upholding confidence in specialized handling

When it comes to medical products with specialized handling needs like chemical vaults or cold chain (where products require temperature-controlled storage and transport), Cardinal Health has earned the trust of customers. That trust stems from our deep expertise in quality assurance and regulatory compliance and our robust market coverage that ensures customers can get the products they need when they need them.

As Director of Global Logistics, Quality & Regulatory Affairs for Cardinal Health’s medical and pharmaceutical product distribution, Keegan Chamberlain knows both professionally and personally why this trust is so important. When his daughter, Adelyn, was born, she experienced renal failure and required nightly dialysis until a kidney transplant was found.

“We were taught how to administer a renal dialysis solution at home so that we could finally leave the hospital with Adelyn,” said Chamberlain. Once Adelyn was home, a driver picked up a pallet of renal dialysis solution (which had to be maintained at a temperature of 20°C to 25°C/68°F to 77°F) from a Cardinal Health distribution center and delivered it to Chamberlain’s home every week.

“Cardinal Health’s specialized handling capabilities were absolutely critical to our daughter’s health,” Chamberlain said. “Our experience has given my role supporting quality and regulatory compliance across the organization special meaning.”

For medical product distribution, precision and scale matters

“Cardinal Health can be a single source of medical products for all our customers’ needs,” said James Sembrot, SVP, Supply Chain for U.S. MPD. “We handle all of the complexity so that our customers don’t have to – which means they can focus more of their time on patient care.”

As the business continues to bring new offerings to customers, our quality team is constantly adding those new products to their catalogue – carefully evaluating every item for unique handling requirements. Information about each product, such as storage condition codes, hazardous storage specifications and transportation regulations, is shared electronically across the distribution network where quality control procedures and specialized handling processes are applied consistently. 

Whether the product is sensitive to light or temperature, flammable, corrosive, contains alcohol, aerosol, or needs to remain upright, we pay meticulous attention to detail to protect product integrity, as well as the safety of professionals who handle them. If information on a label is vague or missing details, members of the quality team proactively contact suppliers to ensure product codes are accurate and comprehensive.

“With hundreds of thousands of medical products in our catalogue and growing, we continue to invest in our specialized handling capabilities,” said Adam Farmer, VP, Supply Chain Flow & Strategy, U.S. MPD. “We’re proud of our market coverage and ability to respond to our customers’ needs and to increasing demand.”

Enhanced security measures are also in place to protect employees. Chemical vaults that store flammable products are separated from the rest of the warehouse and include special fire-resistant racking and air-exchange units to improve air quality.

“Customers want to know their medical products distributor is in good standing with every licensing and regulatory body,” said Sembrot. “Cardinal Health adheres to strict quality and safety standards while constantly seeking ways to improve efficiency, reduce risks and help our customers save on costs.”

One example of cost savings is realized when our facilities receive full cases of products with hazardous designations from manufacturers and then break them down into smaller units for distribution. Through this process, teams ensure Department of Transportation (DOT) regulatory exceptions for shipping smaller quantities of certain hazardous products are applied, which means they can pass shipping and handling fee savings to customers.

“Though other distributors may only be able to ship full cases of product, Cardinal Health has the regulatory knowledge and the scale to ship products in lower units of measure for our customers,” said Farmer. “In other words, this means customers only pay for the supplies they need and save on specialized handling fees.”

U.S. MPD continues to invest in its specialized handling infrastructure and supply chain capacity. For example, we’ve enhanced back-up generators in our DCs and have installed alarm-enabled temperature monitors that automatically send signals if temperatures fall outside of set ranges. For cold chain deliveries, we continue to advance the use of containers and cooling agents so if transport is disrupted, products can remain cold for up to 48 hours.

In addition, “we place a high priority on comprehensive training for our frontline associates who work in our DCs,” said Farmer. “Training includes shipping and inventory management protocols and handling of hazardous materials. We also perform audits to ensure appropriate processes are followed.”

Meeting the need for cold chain in Pharmaceutical Distribution

Just as demand is growing for specialized handling capabilities within the medical products space, so is the need within pharmaceutical distribution.

Tens of thousands of unique products are carried by Cardinal Health’s Pharmaceutical distribution business. “As more temperature-sensitive products are developed for prevention and treatment, we recognize that our customers will seek cold chain capabilities to ensure the safe handling and distribution of these products for their patients,” said Jamie Barker, SVP of Cardinal Health’s Pharmaceutical Supply Chain. “We remain committed to the integrity of our supply chain and patient safety, and continue to expand our cold-chain capabilities.” For example, the ongoing global efforts to distribute vaccines for viruses like COVID-19 require extensive cold chain infrastructure. Cardinal Health’s Specialty Pharmaceutical Distribution business opened a 328,000-square-foot distribution facility in LaVergne, Tenn., to increase its refrigerated and frozen capacity. The operation delivers products to hospitals, specialty pharmacies, specialty physician practices, infusion centers and dialysis clinics nationwide.

The center was recently upgraded to provide -40°C to -80°C (-40°F to -112°F) Ultra Low Temperature (ULT) capabilities. The ULT capabilities enable the site to store items at even lower temperatures than freezer temperatures (-15°C/5°F to -25°C/-13°F), which is necessary for medicine preservation. This development enabled Cardinal Health to enhance its readiness for the distribution of the recent FDA-approved Omicron XBB.1.5-adapted monovalent COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which are stored on the premises.

Cardinal Health’s Pharmaceutical Distribution business has increased cold chain capability with the expansion of refrigerators and freezers in 21 DCs, with plans to complete additional expansions before 2026. As healthcare continues to evolve and new pharmaceuticals come to market that require cold chain capabilities, Cardinal Health is well-positioned to meet the needs of our customers and their patients.

3PL for pharmaceutical distribution

In pharmaceutical logistics, a 3PL service, short for third-party logistics, functions as a specialized partner engaged by pharmaceutical manufacturers to meticulously handle, store and distribute pharmaceutical products to the professionals and patients who need them.

Cardinal Health’s 3PL services for pharmaceutical manufacturers manage the complexities of distribution so the manufacturers don’t have to. Whether it’s advanced new therapies that require specialized handling and storage solutions, the constantly changing regulatory standards or the impact of frequent weather disruptions, getting pharmaceutical products into the hands of providers and patients is increasing in complexity. Our Cardinal Health team has a deep understanding of these challenges and continuously invests in the facilities, programs and services needed to meet them.

Building and maintaining the infrastructure to support distribution, customer support, proper state licensure and chain of custody security and compliance for highly regulated pharmaceutical products requires a high degree of specialization and significant financial investment.

Healthcare providers should be looking for a forward-thinking partner with an eye toward future trends in the pharmaceutical landscape, a thoughtful perspective on potential challenges and opportunities these trends may create, and the ability and willingness to invest in innovative emerging technologies to ensure readiness for whatever may come. That includes offering solutions to control chain of custody throughout the product lifecycle of increasingly expensive and complex personalized medicine, like cell and gene therapies.

“We pride ourselves on the speed, efficiency and breadth of the personalized, scalable distribution solutions we offer,” said Joel Wayment, VP of Cardinal Health 3PL. “Our continued investment in state-of-the-art technologies, facilities and programs illustrates our commitment to providing industry-leading 3PL logistics services, like the nation’s only transportation network dedicated specifically to pharmaceuticals. Our ability to anticipate the current and future needs of our customers, while constantly adapting to ever-changing real-world conditions is essential to our ability to safely deliver these critical products to the places and people who need them most.”


As Cardinal Health looks forward, building supply chain resiliency and mitigating disruptions remain top priorities. For products that require specialized handling, we continue to invest in capacity and distribution enhancements to provide customers – and their patients – with the products they need, when they need them.

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Cardinal Health is a distributor of pharmaceuticals, a global manufacturer and distributor of medical and laboratory products, and a provider of performance and data solutions for healthcare facilities. Subscribe to our News Alerts to get all of our latest news.