Observation Deck – The supply chain that works

From all reports, the supply chain worked well this spring, as A(H1N1) – the swine flu – burst into public consciousness. The epidemic (now officially a pandemic) could have ignited the worst of the worst – hoarding, panic buying, etc. But for the most part, that didn’t happen. Most supplies, with the possible exception of N95 respirators, were on hand and ready for patient care. (And with careful planning, the N95 puzzle should be solved by next fall as well.)

Sure, there were glitches. For example, my email inbox had more than its share of messages about various “swine-flu products.” And I’m sure yours did too. One of the suppliers I spoke to for this month’s article joked about products with names scary-close to “Swine Flu Be Gone.” And I’m told that more than one manufacturer got calls from “distributors” they’d never heard of before, pleading for products they could resell in a hurry. Well, these things happen.

But by and large, the supply chain worked as it should. That’s a testament to a few things. First, caregivers have learned the lessons of infection control. With the exception of the isolation procedures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the procedures recommended for treatment of H1N1 patients mimic those already in place for routine patient care – the use of personal protective equipment, frequent and thorough handwashing, etc.

Second, all the disaster-preparedness plans put into effect following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other events really work, if we use them. Granted, it’s difficult to brush these plans off and study them when things are running smoothly. But from all indications, that’s exactly what contracting executives and others have been doing.

Third, communication between buyers and sellers stayed open. Perhaps that’s an outgrowth of the disaster-preparedness plans. But according to the suppliers we talked to for this month’s article on H1N1, maintaining open and frank communication is the single most important thing to ensure an adequate supply of products in times of emergency.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, almost everyone (again, with a few exceptions) respected the position of their supply chain neighbors. Demands were not excessive or unreasonable. Contracting executives, distributors and manufacturers all took what one person referred to as a “long view” of the supply chain. That means recognizing that all parties are in the same business – making sure products flow to caregivers to ensure excellent patient care. It also means recognizing that no one link in the chain should have to shoulder the responsibility of carrying excess levels of inventory. That should be a shared burden.

We’re not out of this thing yet. The World Health Organization is predicting more cases of H1N1 in the months ahead. But as long as cool heads prevail and the lines of communication stay open, we should weather this storm.

Mark Thill About Mark Thill

Mark Thill is the Editor of The Journal of Healthcare Contracting and has been reporting on healthcare supply chain issues since 1985. He is a graduate of Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., and he received a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

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