As the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus continue to spread across the country, items such as ventilators and PPEs, like the N95 mask, have become household names because of the public awareness of their extreme shortage. The country is scrambling to figure out how to get our healthcare system these necessities, which in non-crisis times would be sufficient due to the relatively steady, uninterrupted supply chain.
In a time of crisis, though, our reliance on supply chains for goods crucial to getting through the crisis becomes fully apparent. And while some goods, such as face masks and toilet paper, make the news for their scarcity or the ensuing “one item per customer” grocery store limits, less known at-risk goods often fly under the public’s radar.
In order to avoid new and additional critical shortages, the question we need to be asking is: Are we identifying other critical items that might become scarce in the next month, the next 90 days, the next 6 months — and are we planning for their impending shortage, too?
The country is quickly learning how hard it is to rapidly manufacture, procure, and distribute scarce products caused by large, reactionary changes in demand.
Even an item that seems basic, such as toilet paper, is actually supported by a complex supply chain that is hard to rapidly re-orient. Therefore, we can’t passively assume that items that aren’t in crisis today, will have adequate inventory as the pandemic continues, expands and moves to new hot spots.
A system is needed to forecast where and how the supply chains will continue to be disrupted, anticipate upcoming shortages and formulate a plan of action before the deficit hits.
For example, speaking with doctors on the frontlines, even with sufficient ventilators, without the correct anesthetic and paralytic drugs, patients will not be able to physically tolerate being on the ventilator, which would render the extra ventilators ordered in response to the device shortage practically useless. And while the doctors desperately need N95 masks, they also are starting to run low on basic gowns, and actually need Tyvek-like suits to truly prevent them from being infected.
While messaging to the masses has rallied citizens to slow the surgical mask shortage, we must take a broader look at what shortages are to come, especially for shortages like pharmaceuticals that cannot be easily replicated by the public.
The current administration, the states and our major healthcare providers and suppliers must expeditiously learn from the immediate supply crises. As we are seeing in real time, national supply chains are not designed to automatically react quickly just because there is a crisis at hand.
Supply chains have limited flexibility in the short term, taking time to react to disruptions and changes at any level, let alone at every level.
In order to avoid future critical shortages, we must identify both current and likely shortages and activate the necessary resources. We must gather information from a broad array of sources, both public and private organizations, to project future demand spikes and supply constraints. There must also be consistent communication from leaders at all levels so we, as citizens, can help plan for imminent shortages and come up with creative solutions to produce or procure products before they become scarce.
We must expand our thinking to anticipate the complete array of what shortages are likely to come.