Post-COVID challenges linger for supply chain leaders

Although the public health emergency ended May 11, healthcare supply chain executives are still reeling from the havoc brought on by the pandemic and navigating solutions.

In late April, the American Hospital Association warned that the healthcare supply chain is unlikely to return to "normal" any time soon. But two supply chain executives told Becker's that the issues plaguing the supply chain existed before COVID-19 and remain. 

Navigating their way through disruptions, shortages and delays has been their "normal" for years — but now they face mounting pressures to get supply back on track, identify cost savings and employ technologies that are the right fit to improve processes.   

Both Patrick Vizzard, vice president of system supply chain management and strategic sourcing for the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore, and Bob Taylor, senior vice president of supply chain for RWJBarnabas Health in West Orange, N.J., told Becker's what is top of mind for them professionally, what has helped their organizations, and what they expect to see next in the field.

Technology, friend or foe?

COVID-19 raised the visibility of weaknesses in the supply chain prompting many companies to come on the scene with new technologies aimed at improving processes, but the myriad new solutions can also bring challenges. 

For one thing, it is essential to involve technology and IT experts throughout the process of investigating and testing new technology solutions, Mr. Vizzard explained. Failing to do so can hurt an organization and actually worsen efficiency, he said. 

"It is a wasteful process if we bring a new tool in and we don't manage it well," Mr. Vizzard said. "We don't want to have a lot of different programs that we're not maximizing the use of. One of the things that we have implemented is a process to make sure that we are up to speed on all the tools that our IT department offers to make sure that before we start going out to other vendors and taking a look at other tools that whatever is offered from our purchasing organization or what's available that we should be maximizing those tools first."

In a similar vein, Mr. Taylor explained that RWJBarnabas Health is already thinking about how new technologies and the power of automation can be harnessed to aid supply efforts and what may need to be restructured to accommodate changing roles and responsibilities as a result. 

"The challenge of new technologies is, I think, just trying to figure out how to implement it and to realize the benefit of it," Mr. Taylor said. "The labor market is extremely tight right now and we need to look for ways where we can implement technology, because what we're finding is that it's more difficult to fill those positions and the folks are asking, based on the market dynamics, for a higher compensation. But in healthcare, we are kind of the end of the financial food chain. We don't have the ability to pass increases on or gain our reimbursement from insurance companies. Medicare doesn't really have a mechanism by which we can just say, 'well, there's a 10 percent price increase because our costs have increased.' Instead, it's an absorption that we have to do. So looking at automation, artificial intelligence, and looking for ways that we can implement things like that is going to become more important for us to figure out."

Supply chain challenges and solutions

While ultimately little can be controlled by healthcare supply chain executives who are at the end of a pipeline with many visible vulnerabilities, both Mr. Vizzard and Mr. Taylor told Becker's what continues to be key in their post-COVID professional world is collaboration and communication.

Mr. Vizzard said there are three things that are essential to success as a healthcare supply chain professional: 

  1. Understand your internal customers and their needs.

  2. Have open dialogue with vendors and hold them accountable as much as you hold your own team accountable.

  3. Understand the data and learn how to maximize new technologies.

"At the end of the day the physician, the nurse, the clinician, they're standing there and they're not going to blame XYZ vendor for not having a product," Mr. Vizzard said. "They're looking at supply. Our job is to do everything in our power to make sure we have the right product at the right place."

What hospital executives should also keep in mind about their supply departments, Mr. Taylor explained, is that the healthcare supply chain is much different than other supply chain sectors. Understanding that can help others see its unique challenges.

"The healthcare supply chain fits differently into the organization than it may in some others like consumer goods or manufacturing. The supply chain is instrumental in driving the business, because if you're making televisions your core business is based on your ability to get supplies," he said. 

"Our business is a little bit different, a little more nuanced, in that our core business is a delivery of a service and the supply chain has to support the delivery of that service. We should be strategic in the things that we're working on and we should work to bring value back to the organization, but the end goal is always to support the service that is being delivered for the patients."

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