As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread globally, healthcare supply chain professionals across the globe are on high alert. Any global health event or pandemic will most certainly put a strain on the healthcare supply chain.

While several areas of supply chain impact are known, such as a shortage of protective materials including medical grade face masks and face shields, just how these shortages will play out over the next several months remains a big question mark.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that the United States has not seen widespread localized transmission of a novel pathogen like this in many, many decades. As a result, supply chain teams may be caught flat-footed, with no real strategy to deal with a pandemic-level event.

With all this in mind, we sat down for an interview with Dr. Li Ern Chen, a surgeon and a top expert in value and clinical experience. She identifies three key actions for the healthcare supply chain as we grapple with the knowns and unknowns of coronavirus.

Step 1: Account for Quality and Quantity of Personal Protective Equipment in Ordering

By far, the most immediate action supply chain teams need to take is to examine their sourcing for personal protective equipment. If it hasn’t happened by the time you’re reading this, eventually a department will run out of an item that your health system needs. Now is the time to ensure you have multiple avenues for procuring essential protective equipment, such as face masks.

If it hasn’t happened by the time you’re reading this, eventually a department will run out of an item that your health system needs.

Feeding into the current and potential shortages are the manufacturer shutdowns happening overseas. The reality is a significant portion of clinical supplies are produced in Asia, where the epidemic originated. These manufacturing slowdowns and shutdowns will constrain supplies for months to come, even after the current crisis has passed.

It’s also important to closely monitor ‘clinician shrinkage’. As in any industry, a certain amount of product will walk home with staff. “Especially in a situation like this one, where retail availability of protective equipment is running low, your team needs to put proactive procedures in place to minimize the impact,” said Dr. Chen.

As you stretch your supply chain and reach out to less familiar vendors, pay close attention to quality. Take protective gowns, for example. There are varying levels of gown quality, ranging from thinner water-resistant ones that are, less protective ones to thicker ones that are impermeable and resistant to virus penetration. It’s important to collaborate with clinical leaders to ensure the areas and clinicians with different levels of risk are receiving the appropriate grade of equipment.

Step 2: Collaborate with Clinicians and Manufacturers on Logistics and Substitutions

Dr. Chen also highlighted the need to collaborate with clinicians and with manufacturers on logistics and substitutions. We know shortages are coming, and we know they are coming as a result of manufacturing stoppages. “The point is that if you’re waiting until the manufacturer lets you know they’ve run out, you’ve waited far too long,” said Dr. Chen.

  • Proactively reach out to suppliers and manufacturers to find out what stoppages and shortages, if any, they are already aware of. 
  • Get their best estimates beforehand – don’t wait until it’s too late. Receiving this critical information as soon as possible gives you more time to find a suitable substitution.
  • Stay in constant communication with your clinicians. No one has a deeper understanding of how clinical supplies are being used than your clinicians. You need their knowledge and creative thinking, paired up with your supply chain and logistics knowledge and contacts. 

“The point is that if you’re waiting until the manufacturer lets you know they’ve run out, you’ve waited far too long,” said Dr. Chen.

Clinicians’ expertise is critical as supply chain’s opinions of what substitutions should be suitable may not always line up with clinicians’ expectations. Just as with suppliers and manufacturers, proactiveness with clinicians is paramount

By proactively working together with clinicians, suppliers, and manufacturers, your team will be better positioned to find replacements and to discover and source suitable substitutions.

Step 3: Work with Vendors/GPO to Plan for Shortages after Coronavirus

Dr. Chen notes that the shortages aren’t going to right themselves immediately after the coronavirus crisis ends. Stalled manufacturers take time to regain full capacity. And, with hospitals the world over depleted of supplies, it will take time before supply and demand equalize.

As a supply chain team, your creative work will likely not end when the outbreak does. You’ll need to stay on top of your vendor and GPO contacts and craft a plan for ongoing shortages.

Finally, recognize that COVID-19 will throw a curveball to your operations. As an example, elective surgeries may lessen as surgeons and patients choose to delay treatment. According to Dr. Chen, “keeping your regular supply orders on autopilot is likely to result in overspending and stockpiling.”

How to Minimize Impact On Your Hospital’s Bottom Line

As the world weathers the COVID-19 storm, collaboration and communication between supply chain and both manufacturers and clinicians are of utmost importance. Through proactive planning, the supply chain can better position clinicians to meet the coming challenges associated with the coronavirus outbreak.

Take advantage of available tools and software to find savings to balance the inevitable emergency spend and minimize impact on your hospital’s bottom line.

About Dr. Li Ern Chen

Dr. Li Ern Chen is one of North America’s top experts in value and clinical experience and one of the brightest minds in healthcare innovation. As a surgeon, she is uniquely able to use her perspective from time spent in the trenches of care delivery to move the needle in healthcare. Dr. Chen trained in general surgery at Washington University in St. Louis and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, completed her pediatric surgery fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and received her Master of Clinical Science degree while on the faculty at the University of Texas Southwestern. To hear more from Dr. Li Ern Chen on the language differences between clinicians and supply chain, sign up for this webinar on 3/25/20.