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In Stock, Out of Stock, Recalled

Navigating the Supply Chain Maze during COVID-19

April 28, 2022

There’s so much uncertainty with today’s health care supply chain.

I remember way back during January 2020, which feels like another lifetime ago. Back then, there was a crisis developing as a major medical device manufacturer alerted customers to potential quality issues with their surgical gowns. At that time, it felt like a pretty big deal. Looking back, it only foreshadowed what was to come across health care.

We all know that a resilient health care supply chain means the difference between maintaining operations and suspending patient care, but we didn’t truly feel this urgency until COVID-19. The pandemic helped us understand that we can’t take our inventory for granted and that supplies are not always just a call away.

We need gowns, masks, IV lines, syringes, and millions of other items that have to be made somewhere, packaged, shipped, and delivered. These items often travel hundreds or thousands of miles before arriving at their final destination. We know each stop in this supply chain journey has the potential to clog the whole system.

A global economy and a global virus taught us difficult lessons about the modern health care supply chain.

So where do we go from here? I have a few thoughts.

Back to Basics

First, we need to talk about the fundamentals.

The overall success of the supply chain hinges on many elements. There is a need for raw materials. There’s a need for parts. A need for people. Uncompromised technology. Processes and logistics. Transportation. An unrestricted flow. And, a need to get the final product on the doorstep of the customer. Any failure or glitch within any one of those elements hinders or stops the overall process.

The days of readily available and plentiful products is a memory at this point. Even when we secure an item in need and it arrives at our doorstep, the likelihood of it being recalled—albeit, unlikely and maybe improbable—still exists. Changes that happen across the world, such as China’s recent COVID-19 lockdowns, can upend our carefully made plans. Cybersecurity breaches for our vendors or others within our chain could also pose supply concerns.

I don’t write this to fear-monger, but to highlight the challenges we all face in preparedness.

We also know that supply and demand move in an ever-changing cycle. The last two years have put significant pressure on the supply side, but we have to watch market dynamics closely. Having a “lean process” dominated the conversation pre-COVID-19, and we must strike a balance between efficiency and having what we need on hand.

What can we do?

With emergency preparedness, it is always good to focus on what’s within our control.

Here are some tested principles that will be true for your COVID-19 supply chain preparedness and for future risk assessments beyond the pandemic.

  • Situational awareness:  It’s harder to react to what you don’t see coming. Monitor all current events and activities surrounding the market. One disruption might lead to another (e.g. Hurricane Maria creates IV bag shortage). Recalls, shortages, and outbreaks need to be on your radar.
  • Leadership:  Managing the supply chain must be a leadership priority. Encourage all levels of leadership and providers to voice any potential issues they may see. The more eyes monitoring the environment, the better your odds of identifying issues early. You might be able to mitigate a deficiency or find another workaround or solution.
  • Use your data:  Don’t leave data insights on the table. Monitor when an item is anticipated to arrive and when it actually arrived. Follow the data to find trends, strengths, and weaknesses. Carefully read daily reports from your purchasing department.
  • What do you need, and when?:  Reevaluating your “Just-in-Time” and “Just-in-Case” purchasing helps balance the need to have items on hand and overstocking your inventory. We can’t use blunt assessments here, as every department within your facility will have different needs on different timelines. Some demographics may require items or supplies we don’t typically think of (e.g. communication aids, support animals, the production of wheelchairs, or walkers).

As we enter this third year of COVID-19, we’ve learned a lot about our supply chains, but we know we’ll always have to be vigilant for disruptions. Our jobs won’t get easier as the pandemic fades from the headlines.

Perhaps our greatest lesson after two years of pandemic response is also a humbling one: Even the best-made emergency plans face surprises along the way.

HAP’s emergency management team supports hospitals in their supply chain preparedness. For more information or questions, don’t hesitate to contact meor another member of HAP’s emergency management team.

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