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How to Manage Healthcare Supply Chain Disruptions

Bana Jobe, Writer

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be construed as legal, financial or tax advice. Please always consult a knowledgeable professional advisor.

The supply chain healthcare industry has gone through Herculean disruptions from COVID-19—and not just for frontline hospitals. Temporarily shuttered by country governments, many providers like massage therapists and chiropractors are now confronting the challenge of reopening their business amid healthcare equipment and supply shortages.

Getting medical supplies for healthcare providers, like personal protective equipment (PPE), has been a priority to protect patients, clients, and staff. For example, dentists have voiced concerns over the lack of N95 masks and disposable gowns, and have asked the Department of Health to cover the cost to restock those critical supplies. In fact, the shortages of PPE have prevented dentists from opening in some parts of the UK.

But shortages for small practices go well beyond PPE. Disinfectants and hand sanitiser are also hard to come by. Lack of PPE is just one of the many factors affecting the supply of healthcare services. And as upstream manufacturers pivot to produce essentials like swabs and ventilators, everyday equipment and supplies could become scarce, too.

Exacerbating a preexisting problem

The supply chain in the healthcare industry was already experiencing issues, but the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified them. In a recent report by the Pharmaceutical Journal, around 80-90 percent of the UK’s supply of generic medicines are manufactured in China and India. In February and March 2020, the spread of COVID-19 forced some Chinese factories to cease production. The workforce was in lockdown, and transport between factories was not possible, so the supply of raw materials for medicines was severely disrupted.

Right now, priority is placed on the shortage of healthcare equipment and supply 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. According to a recent report from The Guardian, the NHS has been forced to put new rationing measures in place to ensure hospitals do not run out.

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 their purchase orders cancelled when manufacturers. In the face of ongoing issues of supply chain management in the healthcare industry, the NHS supply chain update was initiated to keep hospitals and private practices abreast of delays or cancelled orders.

The Department of Health & Social Care has a PPE plan that will aim to give everyone healthcare equipment and supplies. This involves setting up cross-government PPE sourcing units to secure new medical supplies for healthcare providers, as well as requesting local UK industries to create new PPE manufacturing capabilities in the UK. The UK is starting to see that keeping production more centrally localised creates huge benefits in supply chain management in healthcare.

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 supply chain in the healthcare industry. Fortunately, there are some resources that can help.

How to safeguard against shortages

Just like with telehealth, new infrastructure to bolster supply chains in the healthcare industry has been in the works for many years, but COVID-19 has kicked it into overdrive.

Thanks to changes in process and innovation, 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 health department to learn more about the potential resources that may be available to help refill supplies. The National Health Service (NHS) also offers information for healthcare practices to help source PPE.

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 management in the healthcare industry as a service; Capterra’s list of medical inventory software includes some of them.

Explore local and government initiatives

As more businesses reopen, local initiatives are helping business owners purchase needed materials and equipment from wholesale suppliers. One such effort is the government-initiated VAT zero-rating for personal protective equipment. This will allow more small businesses to purchase more healthcare equipment & supplies. .

Get more strategic about purchasing decisions

If you’ve always purchased healthcare equipment and supplies 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, but going outside the usual supply chain in the healthcare industry can cause issues, as the NHS found out recently. Be wary of price gouging, safety concerns, and faulty products. Know also that uncertified suppliers may counterfeit certification marks or otherwise forge product authenticity. And never be timid about asking for a few samples of the equipment you plan on purchasing.

It never hurts to over-prepare

Despite even the best efforts, the supply chain in the healthcare industry may be recovering for a while. In a report from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, experts caution that long-term structural changes are needed in the healthcare system (including better tracking of the supply chain) before safely reopening to guard against future large-scale black swans like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Businesses should spend time and money doubling-down on preparation efforts to open up again. Check out Square COVID-19 resources and consider what you’ll need—not just tomorrow or next week but also what the next few months or longer may bring.

After all, it never hurts to over-prepare.