Top 7 Challenges for Healthcare Supply Chains During Epidemics and How IoT Can Help


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Since the COVID-19 outbreak, healthcare systems worldwide have been under enormous stress. Medical facilities and personnel have had to rapidly mobilize and apply all available resources against this virus. In doing so, we have encountered a shortage of essential medical supplies, such as masks, protective gowns, and ICU ventilators. Now, as countries are scrambling to meet demand, medical supply chains face logistical issues across different cities, hospitals, warehouses, and production sites. How did these supply chain issues arise, and how can IoT technologies help during such a crisis?


Inaccurate inventory data

Perhaps the biggest problem for managing medical supplies stems from poor visibility into hospitals’ inventory. Prone to a lopsided approach to technology adoption, many hospitals boast top-of-the-range medical devices but at the same time rely on legacy software for managing their inventory, procurement, logistics, and other operations. There were cases reported from reputable medical institutions when during the COVID-19 peak days in-hospital software systems suffered severe performance issues and even ran out of disk space to store patients’ data.


As a result, in many cases hospitals didn’t know exactly how many ventilators and other critical medical supplies they had at a given moment, nor how many they were going to need. After figuring that out, the next challenge was to share it with a proper distributor or reporting it to their city’s or state’s authority. This process of taking inventory and sharing up-to-date data had to be performed continuously in order to optimize relocation of scarce medical supplies across different hospitals. As a result, the influx of inaccurate data was practically derailing the planning effort for hardly-hit cities and regions.


This myopic refusal to put their support operations on modern digital rails should be a wake-up call for medical institutions. It is time for them to look into the modern cloud-based paradigm for managing assets, operations, and staff. Tracking inventory should not be a time-consuming routine for medical organizations. Modern IoT technology, which is also based on the cloud concept, can provide that by utilizing smart labels and tags, which automatically transfer your real-time inventory data to any software application or instantly report it to an authority over secure connection.



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Weak supply chains

Looking closely at how medical supply chains typically function at large, we may see that hospitals are overly dependent on distributors and third-party logistics. That means their procurement process often gets atrophied and forsakes any real capability to quickly adapt to a crisis. This is especially true for public hospitals. Similarly to inventory management, procurement and supply chain management should become a higher priority for medical institutions, especially since they are not specialized in these activities and cannot just wing it when things go wrong.


The best practice is to follow your supply chain and ensure you eliminate unnecessary manual operations and streamline the flow of data all along. As a hospital or other medical service provider, you may specifically focus on integrating your inventory and procurement solutions as the first step; then, take advantage of IoT to track the delivery of items as well as their acceptance status inside your internal warehouse. If you can easily connect to your distributor’s eCommerce solution or your city’s medical supply warehouse, you will be able to create and receive your orders faster and with full visibility.


Hoarding

It is only a natural predisposition to hoard supplies when we cannot fully assess the scale of troubles. However, if there’s a clear shortage of critical supplies, such as ventilators, in a certain hotspot, we simply cannot afford them to sit idle in a warehouse elsewhere. One part of the problem takes us back to IoT-enabled inventory management. The cost of a smart tag is negligible compared with the price of a large box of surgical masks, let alone a piece of state-of-the-art medical equipment. But it does allow you to track where it travels or sits right now. These smart tags are also programmable to allow storing other important information, such as destination, ordering data, and prioritized delivery designation.


That said, hoarding is not typically the hospital’s level problem. Medical supplies may be more often stockpiled at a city’s, manufacturer’s, or distributor’s warehouse while hospitals need them right now. Sometimes hoarding happens due to poor logistics or lack of prioritization for critical supplies delivery. This is why supply chain innovations should be an end-to-end endeavour. Having gray areas is bad for centralized planning during emergency situations. As much as the government and city’s authorities are concerned about personalized medical insurance and smart hospitals, it should be their priority to enable a granular approach to tracking strategic medical supplies across all physical sites and en route.


Delayed supplies allocation

IoT and data analytics go hand in hand when it comes to resolving complex real-world problems. The COVID-19 situation has taught us that a rapid response to ever-changing dynamics of the virus spread largely depends on the accurate data modeling. Such projections allow governments to make more informed decisions on where to allocate supplies. However, there are two more prerequisites to a well-coordinated allocation of medical supplies across the country. That’s where IoT plays a crucial part.


The first is having valid data on the current inventory at different medical sites and their actual need. Hospitals have to be able to quickly collect and send that data to authorities, which yet again brings us back to using IoT for inventory management. In fact, hospitals need to totally reprioritize their supply chain management capabilities if they are to be prepared for similar types of emergencies in the future. It is time to think of supply chain management as a backbone of their emergency response effort and optimize it to a tee with the help of IoT logistics applications.


The second is managing complex logistics of relocating supplies between different sites. By using modern fleet management and cargo tracking capabilities enabled by IoT, distributors should be able to provide near real-time data on supplies relocation to authorities and medical institutions. Keeping this data in-sync between authorities, distributors, and hospitals would allow for accurate planning on a very granular level and prioritizing delivery of critical supplies, thus acting faster and saving more lives.


Shady ordering and bidding processes

There were multiple incidents during the COVID-19 chaos when orders were not fulfilled due to undercover bidding schemes. Accusations flew around even on a global level when countries voiced their suspects that other governments may have intercepted their initial orders by offering a better price. To preclude such foul play, clients can rely on end-to-end delivery tracking technologies powered by IoT. Full visibility into order fulfillment and delivery should be an important requirement for distributors to get access to critical medical supplies.


The problem of cities, provinces or states bidding against each other for medical supplies can be also relieved to some extent with the help of technology. By making not just generic but data-driven requests to the central government allows local authorities to ensure that their needs are taken into account; it also helps them better plan their finances when buying and distributing necessary items.


Slow repurposing of manufacturing facilities

It’s hardly possible to have enough medical supplies for every type of emergency. That’s where manufacturing companies should be able to step up to the plate and produce what’s necessary in larger numbers. In practice, we’ve seen that some countries had very limited capabilities to repurpose their existing factories and produce enough quantities of even basic PPEs, let alone medical equipment. In the case of heavy shortages, no supply chain management can save the day. To ramp up production fast, it is vital to make provisions for more adaptable manufacturing processes.


There’s no quick fix solution to that other than a holistic digital approach to industrial transformation based on the modern technology in IoT, cloud, robotics, programmable automation, and analytics. Manufacturers should be incentivized to introduce programmable backup workflows that can be up and running in the shortest time when the need arises. This used to be done before for military needs but now a list of potential emergency supplies should be reconsidered and expanded with the emphasis on the medical needs.


Lack of innovations

Even though innovations may seem never enough, the COVID-19 healthcare crisis has brought some distinct issues into the spotlight. A large number of countries, when faced with a shortage of critical medical supplies, weren’t able to quickly ramp up their own production. Outsourcing plays a positive role for the global trade but it doesn’t mean you have to forfeit your very capability to manufacture life-saving devices. It is of strategic importance to develop high-tech manufacturing and adopt innovations that can potentially protect entire countries during a global emergency, including well-integrated supply chains between hospitals, logistics operators, and factories.


You can’t be fully prepared for every crisis but you can be agile and resilient to quickly bounce back after getting a blow. This is achieved through great management practices, strong connections with other parties in your business ecosystem, but also by using modern technology. In the final analysis, technology makes you more competitive on a global scale and allows building prosperity, expertise, and skills that all come into play at a darker hour. Innovations are the ultimate strategy for both war and peace.


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