The healthcare supply chain has undergone Herculean disruptions from COVID-19 — and not just for frontline hospitals. Temporarily shuttered by state 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 both national and local dental societies have requested federal support to restock those critical supplies. In a survey among dental offices, most said they had fewer than two weeks before they’d run out.
But shortages for small practices go well beyond PPE. Disinfectants and hand sanitizer 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 preexisting problem
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that 63 manufacturers from 72 factories in China have experienced production problems with essential medical devices.
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. In a survey among hospital leaders in February, only 11% of respondents felt their supply chain was as good or better than other industries, reports Managed Healthcare Executive.
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 low demand and worker furloughs — redirected operations to make better-selling items, like ventilators and testing supplies.
Supplier groups have stepped up to meet demand and stabilize stockpiles for practices of every size and scale. The National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable, for example, has launched new efforts to streamline and track where medical equipment goes to identify shortage hotspots.
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.
Fortunately, there are resources that can help.
How to safeguard against shortages
Just like with telehealth, new infrastructure to bolster healthcare supply chains 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 is in need of PPE, get in touch with your local or state health department to learn more about the potential resources that may be available to help refill supplies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also offers information for healthcare practices to help source PPE.
Optimize 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 this as a service; Capterra’s list of medical inventory software includes some of them.
Explore local initiatives
As many local businesses ramp up phased reopening plans, local initiatives are helping business owners purchase needed materials and equipment from wholesale suppliers. One such effort in Port Allen, LA, offers group rates for supplies, including a package of 50 masks for $52, for example. Check with your chamber of commerce or local business group 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. But 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 international vendors, look to the CDC’s guide for purchasing respirators from another country.
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 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 it can stand up against future large-scale black swans like the COVID-19 pandemic.
As more businesses reopen, practices should spend time and money doubling-down on preparation efforts. 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.