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How to Manage Healthcare Supply Chain Disruptions

Bana Jobe, Writer

The healthcare supply chain has undergone unimaginable disruptions from COVID-19—and not just for frontline hospitals. Temporarily shuttered by local state and territory governments, many providers like massage therapists and chiropractors are now confronting the challenge of reopening their business amid supply shortages.

Getting personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a priority to protect patients, clients, and staff. Dentists, for example, need N95 masks and disposable gowns, and Australian and New Zealand dental professionals have requested support to restock those critical supplies. In a survey from 31 March, 656 dentists across the country said they had to shut down due to inadequate stocks of PPE.

But healthcare supply chain shortages for small practices go well beyond PPE. Disinfectants and hand sanitiser are also hard to come by. And as upstream manufacturers pivot to produce essentials like swabs and ventilators, everyday equipment and supplies could become scarce, too.

Exacerbating a pre-existing problem

As far back as 2017, the Department of Defence, in consultation with 130 representatives from the Australian biotech community, studied supply chain health and warned of Australia’s inability to meet domestic needs of vital medical equipment and supplies.

Right now, priority is placed on shortages at the hospital level, and for good reason. Hospitals are battling coronavirus head on. They’ve dealt with cracks in the supply chain even before COVID-19.

But hospital-wide deficits also affect small and private practices. For one, many providers from closed elective clinics donated their supplies to local hospitals at the start of the pandemic. Others may have found supply chain disruptions when their purchase orders were cancelled when manufacturers—in the face of stockpiling exports by China—redirected shipments of PPE and medical equipment from Australia. Moreover, the Australian supply chain has had to deal with counterfeit or inadequate medical supplies.

Supplier groups have stepped up to mitigate COVID’s impact on supply chain operations by meeting demand and stabilising stockpiles for practices of every size and scale. The Australian Government Department of Health, for example, has launched a national medical stockpile to help the Australian supply chain during national emergencies.

Even still, dentists, optometrists, and others still struggle with diminished supply. As public health experts continue to track the rate of COVID-19 cases, providers are also wondering how to keep their businesses afloat in the long term with an uncertain healthcare supply chain.

Fortunately, there are resources that can help.

How to safeguard against shortages

Just like with telehealth, new operation and supply chain infrastructures have been in the works for many years, but COVID-19 has kicked it into overdrive.

Thanks to changes in process and innovation in the digital health supply chain, many providers now have backup choices when their traditional suppliers can’t fill orders. Using new technologies and agency guidance, here’s how you can take advantage of these emerging trends to safeguard your business against a pinched supply.

Check with your local health department

If your practice needs PPE, get in touch with your local or state health department to learn more about the potential healthcare supply chain resources that may be available to help refill supplies. The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) also offers information for healthcare practices to help them navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about AHPRA COVID-19 updates.

Optimise existing supply

Make the most of the supplies that you do have. Consider implementing a more comprehensive inventory and tracking system to ensure you’re a good steward of existing stockpiles; doing so can also help remove waste, use up supplies before they expire, and forecast needs so you can save on bulk purchase orders. Many software companies offer supply chain health services; Capterra’s list of medical inventory software includes some of them.

Explore local and national initiatives

As business reopening plans get underway, national efforts are also in progress to ensure workforce PPE goes to those that need it the most. Check with your state or local business groups to see if any of these programs exist near you.

Get more strategic about purchasing decisions

If you’ve always purchased materials on your own from online vendors, consider getting more strategic about your approach by working with a procurement agency or freelance consultant. They can help you compare suppliers, negotiate contracts, determine a plan B and C, and (depending on your purchasing volume) make the most of new technologies such as AI-based analytics or forecasting tools.

Take caution when buying from foreign suppliers

Sourcing equipment or supplies from another country has its advantages if you’re having trouble filling orders from your regular vendor. Square Invoices solutions make it easy for you to set up pay orders with new and existing suppliers. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has fueled a surge in fake medicines and medical supplies. Be wary of price gouging, safety concerns, and faulty products. Know also that uncertified suppliers may counterfeit certification marks or otherwise forge product authenticity. For help vetting or reporting international vendors, look to the Australia Competition and Consumer Commission.

It never hurts to over-prepare

Despite even the best efforts, the healthcare supply chain may be recovering for a while: In a report from the ABC, experts caution that long-term structural changes are needed in the healthcare system (including better tracking of the Australian supply chain) before it can stand up against future large-scale black swans like the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not just making it through COVID’s impact on the supply chain and motivating employees through the current situation, but also preparing for the next supply chain disruption. This means being agile and setting up eCommerce solutions when you can’t physically open your doors. Consider not only what you’ll need tomorrow or next week but also what the next few months or longer may bring.

Check out our COVID resources for small businesses. After all, it never hurts to over-prepare.