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Before hospitals can receive critically needed inventory, they face a daunting hurdle: working with ineffective supply chains that may be using ill-equipped distribution models. Following initial shortages and delays during the pandemic, healthcare executives have been looking for long-term supply chain solutions. In an effort to create availability for life-saving items such as medication, personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical devices, they can turn to technology solutions for the answer.
Initial Response To Medical Shortages
This concept is something that recently affected us all. When the first wave of COVID-19 hit the U.S., supply chains were overwhelmed as stores nationwide ran out of toilet paper, disinfectant products and other essentials. We all remember the fear and anxiety of walking through the empty grocery store aisles not knowing where our next roll of toilet paper would come from. Some turned to family and friends to lend a hand — or in this case, a roll. Likewise, hospitals nationally experienced inconsistent inventory levels, likely as a result of the fragile medical supply chain. Some hospitals experienced dire shortages of PPE. The initially reported high need for ventilators created panic as factories quickly worked to meet the demand, only for the need to dissipate, which led to excess supply. Multiple weaknesses in the supply chain were exposed, and hospitals were forced to respond to shortages during what is likely the most formidable healthcare crisis in our lifetime.
Supply Chain Impact On Medications
Drug shortages continue to make headlines throughout the U.S. and abroad. A lack of visibility into the supply chain makes this worse. Once a drug leaves the manufacturer, there is often very little visibility to where it ends up. Within the present system, it is difficult to track and trace what happens during the drug’s journey, from the distributor to the hospital and ultimately the patient. Distribution issues within the supply chain eventually affect patients, such as the possible shortage of glass vials used to store vaccines. Equally terrifying are the shortages of propofol, an essential medication in the operating room. There have been shortages in the past — as recent as 2019 and as old as 2004. Clearly this is not a new issue, and I believe the healthcare industry is at risk of repeating history if adjustments to prevent healthcare supply chain challenges are not rapidly implemented.
Avoiding Further Shortages In The Future
Healthcare executives are facing supply chain challenges simultaneously and on multiple fronts. Moving forward, they should invest in technology for their supply chain to more effectively manage critical medication and supplies. Many of these issues came to light during the pandemic. Now hospitals must think long-term and deal with added variables such as staff shortages. Technology solutions must be considered to make significant improvements to a traditionally manual and incredibly broken supply chain.
There are several automated technologies available that healthcare executives can use to quickly access data and projections. Cloud-based RFID technology allows for real-time tracking that prevents shortages while enabling healthcare professionals to quickly and accurately see their inventory. My company and Kit Check are two examples of companies that offer this technology. By tapping into the Internet of Things (IoT), companies can use internet-connected medical devices and equipment to enable different systems to speak to one another and ensure information is updated across departments rather than being held up in siloes. Companies like Telit, Comarch and others offer IoT solutions for healthcare. A third option is an analytics platform powered by artificial intelligence, like an electronic health record (EHR) AI platform. On these platforms, cataloging allows users to distribute and curate all analytics in a single web-based action. Users may also have access to benchmarking data so they can analyze their overall performance.
Hospitals can best determine which technology to invest in based on departmental needs and should ideally look for a platform that can solve for a variety of complex use cases. For example, areas that are more impacted by the flu season or COVID-19 vaccine dissemination should invest in technology that can track medication across the supply chain, and they should consider whether they need the ability to monitor temperature and storage conditions. Interoperability with other software platforms is also essential to ensure they can accurately track the administration of vaccines. Others may look to solutions that connect the operating room to other pharmacy and operational departments to ensure anesthetic medication is properly accounted for and monitored. While budgets fluctuate across hospitals — and the healthcare industry is known to be slow to adapt — the most important value add is to consider how much time the solution will save while reducing human error. Consider how well the solution will remove manual processes and empower clinicians to focus on patient care so healthcare decision-makers can shift time spent on inventory management to even more time focused on saving lives.
Hospitals need to adapt to the changes and demands of the supply chain and avoid more life-threatening shortages of PPE and medications. Proactively preparing the supply chain could help ensure healthcare providers can effectively care for their patients without having to make moral compromises and suffer undue chaos.