Supply Chain Management

Hospital leaders have options to help their supply chains during the coronavirus pandemic

March 26, 2020 3:17 pm
  • Alternative sources of needed supplies may be available to hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vetting those sources for quality and safety is crucial.
  • Relaxed guidelines may allow hospitals to acquire different brands of supplies than they are accustomed to obtaining, as in the case of NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks.
  • Collaboration across institutions will be essential to address supply chain issues during the crisis.

Since the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, healthcare industry experts have projected that shortages of supplies such as personal protective equipment and ventilators could endanger clinicians and affect patient outcomes.

Those fears are becoming realized as parts of the country deal with accelerating increases of COVID-19 cases. Although many long-term strategies will involve rethinking approaches to supply chain management, hospitals also can take steps now to help ease the crunch.

Karen Conway, vice president for healthcare value with GHX, works with stakeholders up and down the supply chain to enhance clinical and business performance. She says hospitals and health systems should consider the following short-term steps.

Consider all options, but do so rigorously

Many hospitals are seeking new sources of personal protective equipment for their frontline clinicians and ventilators for patients in intensive care. For example, some hospitals are looking into acquiring ventilators from veterinary clinics, Conway said.

Finance and supply chain leaders should consider the various contracts they have to buy products from manufacturers and vendors, then assess potential alternatives. The process should be evidence-based, incorporating feedback from clinical leaders, to ensure that clinicians feel safe and secure in using new products.

“If they don’t understand what’s driving the decisions, they’ll think those decisions are made based on stock levels instead of on science and evidence,” Conway said. “You want to have clinical evidence that this [alternative product] can be used for this same function or these kinds of clinically relevant attributes.”

Hospitals should vet any nontraditional suppliers to make sure, for example, that those suppliers don’t appear on a sanctions list such as the one published by the HHS Office of Inspector General.

“Unfortunately, we do have a number of unscrupulous players that are cropping up during this crisis,” Conway said.

Providence, the largest healthcare provider in Washington state, initiated the “100 Million Mask Challenge” to mitigate the shortage of N95 respirator masks by calling on the public to help sew masks. The challenge since has gone nationwide, but Conway said providers should use caution.

“You absolutely have to be sure about the material that’s being used,” Conway said. “So, where you can source that kind of material?”

Stay on top of evolving guidelines

CDC has leeway to modify its health and safety guidelines during a crisis such as the ongoing pandemic, and supply chain leaders should be aware of the changes.

For example, Conway noted, CDC already is permitting healthcare workers to use NIOSH-approved N95 masks, which are prevalent at venues such as construction sites. Normally, only FDA-approved masks are allowed in healthcare settings.

Some healthcare leaders have been hesitant about procuring the NIOSH-approved masks simply because they are not accustomed to considering those masks as an option. In fact, “they’re quite equivalent” to the FDA-approved masks, Conway said.

Communication with clinical teams about alternative products is vital, Conway noted. “We just have to make sure that we’re letting the healthcare workers understand what they can use and why,” Conway said.

Look to collaborate

Although individual hospitals and health systems are doing everything in their power to address supply chain issues during the pandemic, they could be more effective if they work together on a regional basis. For example, hospitals in hard-hit New York City may benefit from the clout of the Greater New York Hospital Association in working with the state government.

“To the extent possible, collaborate regionally,” Conway said. “As the outbreaks move and the severity happens, that will be important.”

Healthcare tends to  be a “cottage industry,” Conway said, with many independent actors. But when a natural disaster strikes a community, she noted, competing health systems come together to enhance the provision of care throughout the market.

The same type of approach is needed during the pandemic.

“It’s a matter of us coming together as experts in different aspects of healthcare to figure out solutions,” Conway said.


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