The challenge will not wait

Why the supply chain is instrumental in helping to manage, and overcome, the current crisis
By Jeromie Atkinson

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”
– Paulo Coelho

When faced with a crisis, we naturally defer to looking to our leaders for solutions. Leaders are present in all forms around us; our workplace organization leaders, our community or religious leaders, and of course our leaders at the local, state and federal levels. When leaders are at their best, they are a steadying force during times of uncertainty in taking charge of the immediate crisis, while learning and planning for the future so that the same kind of crisis will never catch us unaware again.

COVID-19 has completely shaken the foundations of life as we knew it. Millions across the country are in self quarantine in their homes, the retail, entertainment, hospitality, and restaurant industries are reeling, the stock market is reflecting the uncertainty of the global market, and millions of people are becoming unemployed as industries attempt to adjust to an uncertain future.

While all that may feel overwhelming, the immediate crisis is the one faced by health systems across the country as they attempt to understand a virus that transmits very efficiently, is much more severe than the annual flu, and is often transmitted by those who are asymptomatic all while managing a patient load that is taxing their resources beyond anything in recent memory. I don’t know when the time is appropriate to look for a bright side, but when we do have some time to reflect, the supply chain of healthcare will have an opportunity to really look in the mirror and diagnose where we could have been better.

Novel approaches to fighting a novel virus
In my conversations with my healthcare supply chain colleagues around the country over the past couple of weeks, the discussions are typically focused on the emergent need – personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, available beds – and the worry about our caregiver colleagues, those who are the last line of defense for the sickest patients. However, I have also been encouraged by the resilience of our healthcare supply chain leaders across the country. When faced with this ‘novel’ virus, they are taking novel approaches to responding to the immediate concerns, while not losing site of our supply chain mantra, that we never become the weakest link in the overall healthcare value chain.

There are many lessons to be learned from this event, and we could likely fill an entire textbook of things that we should do different going forward, but the below are four high-level observations:

  1. Supply chains around the country have been, and rightfully so, heavily tilted toward cost saving outcomes. While driving cost out of the system remains an element of high importance, what has been uncovered of equal importance is the assurance of supply and the importance of having multiple avenues to diversify our spend portfolio and minimize risk on our critical care items. After all, it doesn’t matter what the cost of an item is if you cannot get the item in the first place.
  2. We are still solving many problems in silos. While our collaboration as an industry has never been higher, we often tackle challenges on a premise that “this is my problem to solve” vs. “this is something we can more effectively solve when we work with an extended network of partners.” We often fail in the healthcare supply chain to consider all sources of contribution. While there are pockets of working across systems, inclusive of our supplier partners, it is not nearly as widespread as it could be in the crowdsourcing of ideas and the sharing of capabilities. It is incumbent upon us as an industry group to process how we got here and how we might address these challenges cohesively as a group for the next event. It is only a matter of when before another event, not a matter of if, and using the lessons of COVID-19 to inform our future should be a platform for us all.
  3. Sorting through the ‘noise’ to find clear and concise information is a challenge. While many organizations are doing admirable work in trying to collect content to put in an easily accessible online repository, there are almost as many repositories of information as there are companies in the healthcare supply chain. I read optimistic reports that we are close to turning the corner and pessimistic reports that we should prepare for the worst still to come and many sources that just present the data for the reader to interpret and make decisions based on. Having a source of truth is a challenge with the volume of content to sort through.
  4. The need for an industry utility focused on supply resilience and continuity might be more visible than ever before. While we have resources like the Strategic National Stockpile, we do not have resources dedicated to coordinating supply chain efforts across the industry that is led by healthcare supply chain experts. Tremendous efforts are being exerted by the industry professional organizations, by GPOs, by leading progressive health systems, and many others, but we are often building duplicative versions of the same solutions. It might be time to consider a unified vision for supply continuity of our most critical supplies, funded by our industry and managed by our industry.

When telling someone what I did for a living a year ago, it inevitably ended with the other parties’ eyes rolling back in their head as I explained. I love the profession of supply chain, but let’s be honest: It has never been a sexy industry and I doubt 1 in 10 people had any idea how supply chains make their entire worlds work, from the technology that they use on a daily basis to the clothes that they wear, to the foods they eat. Today, I suspect nearly everyone in the country knows what the supply chain is and has an opinion on it formed over the last 60 days. Of course we should be instrumental in helping to manage this crisis, and most of our supply chain colleagues are currently working around the clock to help manage this emergent needs.

However, the other half of leadership is to ensure we prepare our organizations and industry for the next time something like this happens. This is our time as supply chain leaders to lead with strategy and insights, to create forward looking plans, to be agile and to create sustainable operations supported by a strong supply chain backbone and resilience.

Our organizations, our colleagues – and most importantly our patients – need us to be the best versions of ourselves in the future. Now is our time to have the willingness and courage to adapt and change, and show with our actions that we are ready.

Jeromie Atkinson, Supply Chain Leader and Essentialist, Supply Chain Sherpas. Leveraging more than two decades of strategic customer-focused experience and extensive knowledge of the healthcare supply chain, both as an internal transformation agent and external business partner, Jeromie is a passionate educator and advocate for helping organizations develop solutions tailored to their own internal DNA and to discover and unlock their own supply chain abilities.
He earned his supply chain credentials in a variety of industries prior to joining some of the nation’s most progressive health systems where he applied his focus and passion to elevate supply chain discourse nationally.

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