The often-revisited metaphor of the "one weak link" causing the entire supply chain to fail was in some ways proved correct this year.
COVID-19 has been a pretty unforgiving shop class teacher, judging the chains we've built, link-by-link. But - as steep as the learning curve has been - we've also learned a lot over the course of the last few months.
We've learned from our failures. Single weak links - like sourcing product from overseas, or lack of communication between providers - caused enough whiplash that many healthcare providers couldn't provide necessary supplies to their employees or patients.
But we've also learned from our successes. Many of which were unexpected. Scrambling to find replacement materials to fill in the gaps left by the increasingly insufficient existing systems, we came across some improvements so significant that we ought to be implementing them all the time.
These lessons - the good and the bad - have been the subject of our interviews appearing in the latest episodes of Take 5: An Inventory Series. We relied on the expertise and inside information of Hays Waldrop, founder of the Council of Supply Chain Executives, to provide us some advice on how healthcare leaders can take action to strengthen their supply chains.
And the first piece of advice can be applied across hospital departments well beyond finance and materials management...
1. Work More Efficiently (AKA More Remotely)
Obviously the most crucial elements of hospitals - the delivery of healthcare itself - will not go virtual for the most part. Clinicians and support staff involved directly in that effort will continue coming in and having meetings and huddles in person.
But for everybody else, the question is increasingly becoming: "Do I need to be in the office?"
The biggest impediment to working remotely and virtually is almost always the difficulty in getting set up. Implementing technology, educating users, and adjusting workplace norms are all extremely steep obstacles to overcome in a short time.
But guess what. Pretty much everyone has overcome them at this point.
The c-suite is comfortable with Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype. So are your vendors and suppliers. So are your colleagues at other facilities and systems. Adapting to this new status quo shows adaptability and dedication.
So begin asking yourself: "How much of my job can be outsourced?" "How much of my job has to be done in person?"
(Of course, the danger is then that your coworkers think you're available all the time, so be sure to do some healthy boundary setting. Clear communication is essential in this and the next piece of advice...)
2. Collaborate While You Can
We've talked recently about the value of collaboration over competition. And we'll once again express the fear that - despite all the benefits of hospitals sharing information and sharing resources to make sure their communities are receiving the best possible care - this particular lesson will be forgotten.
As Hays Waldrop pointed out, when the coronavirus crisis is in the rearview, hospitals will probably go back to the way things were. Competition between facilities for patients will be fierce. The every-supply-shelf-for-itself attitude will once again guide decision making. Cost reduction will again be top-of-mind.
But being less able to collaborate with your competitors doesn't mean you're out of options. Plenty of allies are waiting to help you out and see how you can help them in return.
You can leverage the size of your hospital network or GPO to improve your access to affordable, reliably sourced medical supplies. If you work for an independent - particularly a smaller or rural - healthcare provider, you can band together in regional groups to do the same.
And the number of industry organizations that exist is vast. From AHRMM to HFMA to the aforementioned CSCE, you can gain insights into your struggles and triumphs from your peers. By exchanging information between providers, the entire healthcare system in this country gets stronger, not weaker.
And the more information you have, the better you're able to...
3. Determine What You Need
The only way to prepare ourselves to face a catastrophe like this one in the future is to analyze our response and capabilities today.
This may not seem like the perfect time to be gathering data, because you may have one or two other things to worry about. But the overwhelming crisis that we're all facing and the unprecedented challenges that it brings with it are exactly the reason why you should be gathering data now.
We need information about the insane volume of PPE that has been consumed in this short period, because we need to know how to address situations like this in the future.
And if you legitimately don't have the resources - because you and your staff are overwhelmed, or because you don't have the technical capability - that's okay. Because there are industry experts willing to sift through everything from your supplies' likelihood of expiration to your facilities' likelihood of spreading infections.
You don't have to do it all. But you do have to arm yourself with provable data if you want to...
4. Get What You Want
There has probably never been a time when the public has been more focused on healthcare's supply chain. We feel pretty confident saying that healthcare executives' interest in this often-overlooked department has significantly increased as 2020 has progressed, as well.
Which means that supply chain has never had more power.
Once you've gathered the data we mentioned above, you're ready to answer the question: "What do you need?"
Maybe that's more staff. And maybe that staff comes from an unusual or less-leveraged talent pool. Hopefully your organization is one of those increasingly realizing that logistics experts with military backgrounds have an edge over the competition.
Maybe what you need is a more varied approach to sourcing. Yes, near-shoring a portion of your medical, surgical, and other supplies could be more costly. But it's also a way to get closer to guaranteeing you will have at least that portion of the supplies you need when you need them most.
And maybe what you need is more of everything. You saw how hospitals were burning through a year's worth of PPE in a month, and you want to make sure that something like that never threatens you again. But stockpiling PPE - and any other medical supply - is tricky. Because of expiration.
Watching your turns will be the necessary first step in a larger initiative...
5. Plan for the Next Emergency
No one can reasonably lay this year's problem of PPE shortages at the feet of the healthcare procurement professional, just like no one can reasonably lay this year's problem of bed shortages on healthcare in general. But neither the supply chain pro nor hospitals can skate by on that forever.
At some point, you have to show up prepared.
Do more emergency planning. If you get together with your colleagues to simulate an emergency once a year, that's great. Start doing it once a quarter. Start wargaming with the collaborators and competitors that we mentioned above. Have answers ready to questions like: "If our normal supply of masks is totally unavailable, how do we get masks?"
Working more closely and more regularly with FEMA is a great start, but as we've seen this year, the government is only set up to do so much. So you might well benefit from having someone or a council of someones in your organization dedicated to emergency planning.
Don't wait to establish networks of support and mutual aid. Don't wait for the next emergency to arrive. Because it will arrive, and you can only guarantee that it won't be debilitating if you've learned the lessons of the last debilitating emergency and taken the proper steps to avoid its effects affecting you again.
And if you haven't yet been overwhelmed by this current crisis, that's honestly great. We couldn't be happier for you. But if it's not this pandemic, it'll be something else. Hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, the flu, or something we haven't imagined yet because we haven't tried.
It's not fun to think about, but we can only prepare if we do think about it.