During the past year, the healthcare supply chain has been pushed to the limits. Shortages in supplies can impact both the patients in the hospitals, and the staff themselves. Emily Newton looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic showcased the importance of a stronger supply chain, and why implementing new technologies can pave the way for increased efficiency.
The COVID-19 pandemic recently highlighted the urgent need for better supply chain transparency in the healthcare sector. If practitioners encounter unanticipated shortages while caring for patients, the consequences could be deadly or life-altering. Fortunately, technology can pave the way for a stronger supply chain that’s better prepared to handle shocks.
1. Achieving Better Visibility With the Blockchain
Many people associate the blockchain with cryptocurrency. The digital ledger technology started there, but its potential spans far beyond it. For example, the blockchain could facilitate information-sharing about medical supplies and other essential goods that support health facilities.
A recent paper examines how the blockchain could support the circular economy, reducing waste and repurposing resources to meet new needs. For example, the authors brought up how distilleries pivoted to producing hand sanitiser and people with extra fabric used it to create face masks for essential workers.
There were also localised efforts in the United States where government leaders tasked private companies, academic institutions, and other entities to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE). These collaborations bolstered the PPE supply chain during a time of imminent need. The paper suggests that the blockchain could be instrumental in localising the supply chain and showing where resources exist during public health crises and other times.
The blockchain may also play a vital role in ensuring the safe transport and storage of COVID-19 vaccines. Many medications have stringent temperature requirements. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines require extremely cold temperatures and can only stay at room temperature for relatively short periods compared to other vaccine types.
Implementing the blockchain would benefit all involved parties, from the manufacturers to the distributors and the patients. The blockchain is an immutable system, so people cannot tamper with the data. That characteristic helps build trust.
2. Easing PPE Shortages
When encountering patients with highly contagious illnesses, PPE is crucial for keeping providers safe. It also protects them from dangers associated with bloodborne pathogens. Several types of PPE exist, from options that protect the eyes to the whole body.
Once scientists learned COVID-19 primarily spreads through respiratory droplets, people became especially interested in N95 masks. They’re a type of PPE designed to fit snuggly against the face. They filter out at least 95% of airborne particles greater than or equal to 0.3 microns. Some consumers anxiously tried to source those masks, exacerbating the supply shortages that medical personnel faced.
Experts in the United States fear that PPE supply chain troubles will last for years without strategic interventions to fix the problem. Medical workers reported facing order quantity restrictions, making supplies in-house, and even wearing garbage bags when protective gowns ran out. Unfortunately, this problem extends beyond one nation or region.
However, apps could show where the most acute issues exist, spurring decision-makers to take prompt action. In the United Kingdom, people working with the National Health Service can use an app called Frontline.Live to request PPE and alert others about shortages. The data appears on a real-time map.
Another platform called GetUsPPE.org uses algorithms to match available PPE with the locations that need it most. In approximately two weeks, the tool sent 83,136 PPE items to 135 U.S. health care facilities. The matching process initially happened manually. However, switching to the algorithms led to a 280% increase in the number of matches completed daily.
3. Streamlining Vaccination Appointment Scheduling
Most of the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines require a two-dose regimen for maximum effectiveness. Even in the early stages of vaccine rollouts, many areas experienced shortages that forced providers to delay patients’ second doses. In other cases, a related problem emerged where people scheduled vaccine appointments but didn’t show up for them. Providers then scrambled to find individuals available to take the vaccines, often creating waitlists.
A company called QliqSOFT recently launched the Quincy chatbot to alleviate some of these struggles. It assists providers with vaccine distribution by sending patients vaccine invitations when supplies are on-hand and people are due for their second shots. Then, recipients can self-schedule appointments through the same platform.
QliqSOFT’s internal data indicates that people are 94% more likely to show up for appointments they set themselves. The chatbot also gives patients transportation options, making it easier to reach vaccination sites.
Chatbots can also provide reputable information that could reduce or eliminate the vaccine hesitancy that some people feel. A 2021 preprint paper investigated the impact of chatbot interactions on people’s feelings about getting vaccinated. It found that a few minutes of conversing with the chatbot increased people’s intention to receive the vaccine and raised their positive feelings about it.
4. Empowering Patients to Replenish Supplies
Apps and online interfaces have made it substantially easier for people to refill prescriptions. Some companies have Alexa skills that let patients do it via voice commands. Improving the ease of access to prescribed medications could have a positive impact on patient outcomes.
A 2020 study examined whether access to mobile patient portals improved medication adherence in people with diabetes. Individuals who used those interfaces took their oral medications as prescribed more often and had lower blood sugar levels.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many pharmacies and health insurers waived prescription refill limits, allowing patients to get up to a 90-day supply at once. However, some industry professionals worried that prematurely allowing such overrides would strain the supply chain.
Pharmacies compensated by implementing blocks when people tried to refill prescriptions with more than a specific percentage remaining. Pharmacists also provided individualized service in such cases to ensure people who truly needed refills could get them.
This is an example of how technology lets patients get more medication while offering distributors the necessary supply chain transparency to spot potential unnecessary stockpiling.
Tech Creates a Stronger Supply Chain
Technology can open opportunities to make the medical supply chain more resilient. When that happens, patients and providers benefit, while manufacturers enjoy more robust protection from unexpected shortages.
Author: Emily Newton is the Editor-In-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine exploring innovations in science and industry that shares ideas to promote a better tomorrow