COMMENT: How COVID-19 has transformed the healthcare supply chain

Following the announcement that Britain is likely to have administered a first dose of the vaccine to all adults before the Government’s target date of the end of July, Kevin Sample of supply chain specialist, GHX, talks about how the UK can start to build a resilient healthcare supply chain post pandemic

The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic last year highlighted flaws in the healthcare supply chain, in particular around PPE

Kevin Sample

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted several flaws in the UK’s approach to supply chain management in the healthcare sector, from delivery delays to shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE).

Since then, the supply chain has evolved to try to tackle these challenges through increased visibility, automation and, most prominently, digitalisation.

And, with healthcare supply chains innovating to step up to the challenges of the pandemic; how can we expect to see these changes continue to evolve beyond the end of COVID-19?

Dealing with the pandemic has already restructured the global healthcare supply chain, with improved supply chain visibility and data insights becoming necessary to the medical response

Supply chain visibility

COVID-19 exposed weaknesses in a supply chain, where information on existing inventory levels and consumption was not routinely shared between suppliers and providers.

There was a lack of clear visibility in hospital supply chains, which made it difficult to identify when, or even if, goods would arrive.

This meant that supply chains couldn’t tackle issues until they caused a problem, with the most-obvious example being the PPE shortages at the beginning of the pandemic.

In order to achieve full visibility across the supply chain, all organisations and components have to get onboard with the same technology to provide an accurate, real-time picture

Perhaps the most-important impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare supply chain will therefore be improving supply chain visibility (SCV).

Better SCV means that components, equipment, and products can be tracked from manufacturer to consumer, with logistical information shared to reduce errors, promote quick responses, and allow for the reshaping of demand or redirection of supplies.

With a deeper understanding of how supply partners are managing risk, providers can make sourcing and contracting decisions to minimise potential supply chain disruptions.

So, if a consultant can see there’s a shortage in titanium, for example, they might postpone any elective joint replacement surgeries and instead schedule other operations that don’t require that material.

In order to achieve full visibility across the supply chain, however, all organisations and components have to get onboard with the same technology to provide an accurate, real-time picture.

Data as the starting point

Data management has to be the starting point for pro-actively managing inventory across the supply chain.

COVID-19 has encouraged the development of better data strategies, with healthcare providers analysing case data to better predict demand becoming a central part of the NHS’s COVID response.

And, as the pandemic progressed, healthcare procurement teams improved their ability to collect, maintain, and properly analyse reliable, reproducible, and secure data.

For example, healthcare teams became better at identifying areas more susceptible to COVID-19 cases based on a combination of real-time data and existing information on the make-up of populations, which then influenced decisions on what resources to stockpile in a specific location.

In order for the industry to truly benefit from the lessons learned from the pandemic, increased visibility, automation, digitalisation, and use of data need to continue evolving across all healthcare settings

As the healthcare supply chain continues to evolve post pandemic, there needs to be an increase in effective data collection and utilisation to enable healthcare procurement teams to track and analyse everything from stock levels in hospitals to manufacturer output.

Further to this, if the healthcare supply chain can embrace this use of data, collaborative planning, and forecasting, it can improve its response to errors or unexpected events.

Consider what could happen if trusts shared and utilised data on age, health, and population density over an entire population set.

This information could help to better predict illness hotspots, the types and volume of clinical products that will be needed, and when hospitals will need them.

The supply chain has evolved to try to tackle the challenges through increased visibility, automation and, most prominently, digitalisation

Automation in all settings

A data-driven healthcare supply chain can only be utilised effectively if automated processes are employed to act on the data insights being collected.

Using inventory data, stock can be monitored in real time to automatically track when a piece of medical equipment is used.

This means that monitoring stock levels in real time is possible, allowing purchase orders to be automated when stock falls below a certain threshold.

The ability to gain real-time insight into stock levels, assess the likelihood of an increase in the need for medical supplies, and then pre-emptively order the required supplies, all without diverting clinical staff away from frontline care, is incredibly significant in healthcare’s fight to meet clinical demand for critical medical supplies

The ability to gain real-time insight into stock levels, assess the likelihood of an increase in the need for medical supplies, and then pre-emptively order the required supplies, all without diverting clinical staff away from frontline care, is incredibly significant in healthcare’s fight to meet clinical demand for critical medical supplies.

It’s worth mentioning that this digital transition is particularly necessary in non-acute care settings.

COVID-19 didn’t act as a technology accelerator for social care in the same way it did hospitals and, while primary care supply chains have become far more sophisticated with the integration of digital inventory management, many other care facilities still handle their material orders manually.

A post-pandemic transformation of the healthcare supply chain has to see the lessons learned expanded into non-acute settings if we are to prevent the scenes of PPE shortages in our care homes that we saw last year.

Dealing with the pandemic has already restructured the global healthcare supply chain, with improved supply chain visibility and data insights becoming necessary to the medical response.

However, in order for the industry to truly benefit from the lessons learned from the pandemic, increased visibility, automation, digitalisation, and use of data need to continue evolving across all healthcare settings.

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