As COVID-19 surges and supply lines become critical, health system leaders are working toward real-time visibility and predictive tools for inventory, pricing, lead times and demand trends.
With the next wave of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to crash down in hospitals around the country, it's more important than ever for health systems to be well attuned to their supply chain needs.
One of the biggest challenges of the first wave this past spring, of course, was the shortage of personal protective equipment, ventilators and sometimes critical medications. Supply chain vulnerabilities were acute – and that's not counting the ongoing cyberattacks targeted at health system supply lines.
Some of these challenges have been ironed out over the past eight months. But as the COVID-19 crisis surges again, CIOs and other IT professionals say robust supply chains are more important than ever.
As Hal Wolf, CEO of HIMSS (parent company of Healthcare IT News) said this past week, a revolution in supply chain management is long overdue.
"We have really under-focused on supply chain," said Wolf, who noted the critical need to track the source of medications and equipment; understand the quality of materials (being able to discern, for instance, that a shipment of N95 masks is really what it says it is); and ensuring supply chains are not interrupted – all while having visibility into price, inventory control and more.
Hospital leaders around the country told Healthcare IT News that the current segmentation of systems has led to shortages right when facilities needed resources most.
Models such as CISOM, developed to improve quality and safety through the integration of supply chain and clinical data in healthcare organizations, can address such inefficiencies. But what are some ways that technology might play a role in making supply chain management a more seamless experience?
Chief information officers and other healthcare leaders who oversee the supply chains weighed in with their own experiences.
"At LifeBridge Health, we have approached the pandemic with a threefold supply strategy: Conserve; source; and, where needed, manufacture," said Tressa Springmann, CIO at LifeBridge Health in Baltimore. "Clearly, as we are now seeing cases rise again, a keen ability to pivot more quickly has surfaced, and a few additional tools would put us into an even better position both now and into the future.
"First, more complete analytics: analytics that tie [predictions of] patient volume and acuity with supply demand would be helpful," she said.
"Second, real-time artificial intelligence that makes visible the entire life cycle – end-to-end if you will – of the global supply chain. This visibility would enable a more effective response to market disruption, risk reduction and position us more effectively for enhanced business continuity."
"The healthcare industry would tremendously benefit from supply chain IT systems being much more seamlessly integrated with electronic medical records and their respective materials data sets integrated side-by-side with clinical data," said Aaron Miri, chief information officer at Dell Medical School and UT Health in Austin, Texas.
"The current state of this system's bifurcation led us down some rabbit holes during the PPE crunch, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and therefore causes data analytics teams to have to jump over hurdles that shouldn't be this difficult," said Miri.
"Further, it's holding back advancement in value-based care bundles and new VBC products that could be put to market, as looking at a patient's complete health often includes materials and respective pricing of materials used during surgery, recovery and ongoing therapy," he said.
Some health system leaders pointed to technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning as ways to help augment inventory control.
"We at Stanford Children's Health would like to see our supply chain tool provide real-time visibility and predictive analysis, such as available inventory, preferential pricing, lead times from different suppliers and demand trending," said Garima Srivastava, executive director of enterprise business systems.
"We would also want a system that can be scaled to incorporate new robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and radio frequency identification-based management," Srivastava added. "These are important for us to move towards the digital transformation and automate lots of manual work, which our supply chain department currently does. It will speed up some processes and will reduce manual errors."
Using RFID in particular, Srivastava pointed out, "we will be able to track high-cost items and can manage our inventory better."
"We would love to see predictive forecasting and scenario planning, powered by machine learning and AI capabilities, integrated into our demand planning and supply modeling tools," agreed B.J. Moore, CIO at Providence in Renton, Washington.
"Think about the ability to predict consumption of PPE items based on real-time COVID modeling, patient admissions, and/or case data, and not on historical consumption alone," he mused.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital CIO Keith Perry also prioritized location awareness. He said he'd like "to have the ability to track an item throughout the supply chain, including (and most important) the 'last mile,' until it physically arrives at the final delivery destination.
"Unlocking or exposing supply-chain data as appropriate for the person who is ordering equipment" would help with efficiency at St. Jude, Perry continued. "That person is the ultimate customer of any supply-chain process."
Bill Donato, vice president of supply chain at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, noted the importance of visibility.
"One of the critical tools to manage the current and future healthcare supply chain is our ability to monitor in 'real time' the status of our critical suppliers' products from their manufacturing plants through their distribution networks," he said. "Additional transparency of our suppliers' sales and operating plans would allow us to anticipate and more effectively manage disruptions to our supply chain."
Leaders pointed out that the changes implemented in response to COVID-19 would have lasting positive effects.
"The most pressing need currently which has been highlighted by the supply chain challenges presented by the pandemic is the need for an affordable, efficient and comprehensive, enterprise-wide inventory management system," said Larry Fogarty, vice president of supply chain management at Memphis-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
"This would create coordinated visibility into the availability, stocking profiles and near-expired product monitoring for supply areas across the organization. It would also go a long way in anticipating supply chain exposures, rather than simply reacting to them – a must in the post pandemic world," Fogarty continued.
"Finally, a coordinated system-wide inventory-management system would facilitate timely, inter-facility transfers to best allocate products where and when needed," Fogarty said.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the supply chain, globally and at our five-hospital health system, I would love to see a warehouse-management-support system that could better manage, move and track inventory."
Brian Murray, assistant vice president for supply chain procurement at NorthShore University HealthSystem, said, "Business intelligence software that automatically produces executive-level reporting and can help better forecast our need for gowns, gloves, N95s, isolation masks, thermometers and other PPE would be great.
"We are currently opening an offsite warehouse for our system and need a software program that will help us respond to and support COVID-19 needs," he said.
Tanya Townsend, CIO for LCMC Health in New Orleans, said that her system is already taking steps to improve resource management.
"We are embarking on a new enterprise resource planning implementation which will include new Supply Chain functionality. I look forward to having more complete visibility to trace products and how that impacts patient care," said Townsend.
"I'm also excited about a more automated end-to-end process for managing inventory and procuring products," Townsend continued.
Similarly, Suzzanne Thomson Quintero, chief supply chain officer at Orlando Health, said the system has taken advantage of existing capabilities.
"Orlando Health is fortunate to have its own 90,000 sq. foot distribution center. This distribution hub uses a warehouse management system to forecast product needs for our 15 hospitals," Quintero explained.
"We recently enhanced the system to provide meaningful reporting to our hospital operators. In addition, we are introducing artificial intelligence into our purchasing operations to help purchase the right product, at the right price, from the right vendor," she said.
"Also, we are actively exploring robotic process automation to further streamline our operations and meet the needs of our community."
"Advanced inventory-demand planning, modeling and reporting would be a critical functionality to have in our tool kit to drive value in the supply chain, both long-term and during these unprecedented times," said Bill Moir, vice president of supply chain operations at Advocate Aurora Health in Wisconsin and Illinois.
"AAH is committed to enhancing our supply chain to ensure it is a strategic differentiator for our organization," said Moir. "Investments in our infrastructure, like enterprise resource planning, will ensure a strong standardized foundation that we can continue to build upon and innovate from for years to come."