Wellstar supply VP talks pandemic response, future supply challenges

Wellstar Health System, an 11-hospital system based in Marietta, Ga., has been able to avoid shortages of medical supplies that many hospitals and health systems have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Michael McCullough, senior vice president of supply chain for the health system, credits its success to a self-distribution supply strategy and the system's 300-member supply chain team. 

The health systems that have struggled the most are those who relied on traditional distributors, Mr. McCullough said. Wellstar fared well when the pandemic hit because it could control more of its supply chain through its self-distribution strategy. 

"That strategy really paid off in big dividends for us throughout this pandemic," he said. 

Wellstar has its own consolidated services center, and every year the supply team goes through a robust planning process in preparation for flu season. In September 2019, Mr. McCullough said his team purchased over 1 million isolation gowns and 1 million isolation masks. He said Wellstar probably had more exam gloves than all the other health systems in Georgia combined. That allowed it to build up its supply stores and be more well-prepared when the pandemic broke out. 

Wellstar currently has about 2 million isolation gowns, 1.4 million masks and a year's worth of N95 masks, according to Mr. McCullough. 

"We're ready for a very serious next wave, whether it happens or not," he said. 

The health system also strategically diverted its resources when the pandemic hit. Because surgery volumes dropped significantly, Mr. McCullough said Wellstar diverted the supply chain team members who typically work in the surgical supply department to other departments to help the health system meet the changes in demand for supplies. 

Personal protective gear has been the most in-demand medical supply during the pandemic. Mr. McCullough said that reasonable pricing for PPE has been redefined by the pandemic, and that what Wellstar was once paying 4 cents or 5 cents for, they're now paying 35 cents for.

Many health systems across the country have been faced with the challenge of weeding out bad actors pretending to be reliable suppliers, as many companies were formed overnight to address PPE needs. Some health systems struggled to determine which companies were trustworthy and could supply reliable materials. 

Wellstar overcame that challenge by using its existing relationships with suppliers, Mr. McCullough said. Having an established relationship and established supply chain channels made it easy to get the items the system needed, and many tier two suppliers quickly became tier one, Mr. McCullough said. 

The supply issues facing health systems have gone beyond personal protective equipment, however, into other manufacturer backorders that have been triggered by the pandemic. There have been a number of manufacturer backorders on enteral feeding products, for example, which aren't always used directly for COVID-19 treatment but have gone into backorder because of the pandemic, according to Mr. McCullough.

Looking to the future, Mr. McCullough said he expects gloves are going to continue to be a challenge to supply. Three countries in the world produce exam gloves, and Malaysia produces 75 percent of the world's exam gloves, he said. When the pandemic first hit, Malaysia shut down a lot of its production capacity, he said.

"Many of the other products are no longer high-risk, such as isolation gowns and masks, even N95s. The market has responded well to demand and been able to increase production to respond to that demand, but for exam gloves, the response hasn't been the same," Mr. McCullough said. 

Disinfecting products also continue to be a challenge, because they're used everywhere from hospitals to schools to businesses. 

Mr. McCullough said one big thing that's changed due to the pandemic is that his team has had to work faster than ever. Wellstar's supply chain team meets twice a week now, along with the infection prevention team and some clinicians and nurses, to go through a list of challenging supply needs. The team has had to become much more nimble and responsive. 

The most important lesson Wellstar's supply team learned from the pandemic?

Be prepared, Mr. McCullough said. 

"We're really looking at our stocking strategy. I think we had a great stocking strategy, but we're revisiting it, just being prepared for the next wave," he said.


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