How to manage the global healthcare supply chain in a post-COVID world

Due to the success of the vaccination programme and the declining number of recorded cases in the UK, it has been suggested that COVID-19 will soon transition from a global pandemic to an endemic challenge a bit like seasonal flu. After a year that has seen the global healthcare supply chain pushed into uncharted territory, how will it adapt to a post-COVID world?

Inventory Optimisation

Traditionally, the process for allocating scarce supplies has been driven by historic ordering patterns and contractual relationships. This was often built on a just-in-time (JIT) model, where the supply chain delivers just enough materials to meet predicted demand over days, weeks or months, minimising the need to store excessive amounts of materials on site.

We now acutely understand the inherent risks in this approach.

As pandemic events become more likely due to the globalised nature of the world, lessons from the pandemic must be learnt to ensure a more effective response to future pandemics. COVID-19 has highlighted the limitations of the JIT model when faced with an emergency which requires products to be delivered quickly and at scale.

Firstly, we will almost certainly see an increase in inventory holdings, stockpiling of strategic materials and safeguards to keep critical assets secure. If one thing has been made clear during the past year, it was that proper contingency stock management could have played a vital role in keeping the supply of critical inventory such as PPE or emergency ventilators running smoothly.

It is also likely that the digitalisation of inventory management will become more common. Digital inventory management systems enable a smart, standardised list of products to be created, which ensures that the most critical items can be replenished automatically when stock levels dip too low. This has several benefits, from providing increased control and visibility to improving efficiency by allowing, in the case of healthcare, frontline staff to spend more time with patients rather than having to manually record and update inventory records. By integrating this with a streamlined inventory check system and using technology such as hand-held barcode scanners, clinical staff can automatically update stock levels as and when they use medical equipment.

A Data- Driven Supply Chain

As the UK government unlocks the country based on a “data, not dates” approach, the global healthcare supply chain must also take a similar, data-led approach to its post-pandemic planning. Procurement teams need to continue focusing on collecting, maintaining and properly analysing reliable, reproducible and secure data. This needs to cover everything from stock levels in hospitals to manufacturing output, so that healthcare providers can better manage inventory levels, predict disruptions and help identify corrective solutions. 

A smart supply chain enabled by good data can help the healthcare sector adapt to a post-COVID-19 world. If the healthcare supply chain can continue embracing collaborative planning, forecasting, and replenishment, there will be an increased visibility across the supply chain for all trading partners longer term. If this information is routinely shared, and the data is interpreted and actioned across the supply chain, it can enable trend tracking and quicker responses to errors so hospitals can get ahead of consumption surges, reduce shortage risks, minimise disruptions and address real-time needs with increased agility.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Optimising logistics is important across almost every industry, and healthcare is no different. In fact, as long as healthcare organisations access enough high-quality data from different sources, integrating AI technologies and automation-driven initiatives could be the next logical step in the global medical supply chain post COVID.

Simply put, AI could become a crucial tool for the healthcare sector in the future. We already see AI-enabled tools being used to chart the fastest ambulance routes or patient transfers. Now, AI and automation are a growing presence in healthcare and across the hospital supply chain.

One of the most underestimated benefits of AI, is its ability to analyse large amounts of information to identify patterns and hidden correlations. AI could help to determine the best transportation methods, frequency and routes to move healthcare products, remote patient monitoring equipment or procedural supplies to the locations where they are most needed. AI will also help with predicting increased demand for products in the event of a surge in patient volume and potential disruptions in supply continuity. For example, AI could be deployed to gather data across highly complex medical supply chains to predict disruptions and take corrective action before any medical shortages occur.

By moving away from the JIT model, increasing the digitalisation of inventory management, continuing to harness the power of data and embracing the potential of new technologies, healthcare supply chains can learn valuable lessons from the pandemic and start to build back better processes in the post-COVID world.

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