Toilet paper. Hand sanitizer. Coffee. Over the past year, many people have probably spent more time thinking about their abilities to gather basic supplies than in recent times.
Supply chains are the networks involved in getting products to their end buyer or user, like the toilet paper many of us were fully tracking in early 2020. As with most things, supply chains are actually quite complex. This is especially in the context of a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where there is a need to rapidly and equitably distribute large-scale supplies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has very clearly revealed the dependence of Canada’s public health and health care systems on global supply chains. When the health care system went into crisis mode, it caused simultaneous supply and demand disruptions in global supply chains.
The most immediate and early needs were for critical medical products, such as respirators and personal protective equipment. These products were in short supply globally, leaving health care workers and patients vulnerable.
We are now in a different phase of the pandemic, and many demands on the global supply chain are focused on vaccination supply and distribution. We’ve heard how wealthy countries have monopolized vaccine supply chains, leading to more deaths and economic turmoil in low-income countries.
Additionally, vaccine supply chains require a “cold chain” infrastructure to deliver vaccines to the population. This has strained the public health budget and created additional constraints in many countries and regions around the world.
Supply chain affects health
It is widely believed that where we were born, how we live and where we work are among the most important factors that shape our health. These factors are known as social determinants of health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply chain has emerged as a very important determinant of health.
We make this claim as a team of health supply chain and healthcare researchers who have been deeply involved in studying many relevant aspects of the pandemic over the past year. Public health and the provision of health care depend on global health supply chains.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has exposed the interdependence of our socio-economic systems. Supply chains are often complex networks in which many members use their information through the product life cycle in production, processing, transportation, retailing, and waste management. There is no clear centralized decision maker or mastermind to govern and control the end-to-end supply chain. Instead, multiple distributed participants collaborate and compete to deliver value to customers or patients.
China dominates the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the world. In late 2019, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic was located at the Global PPE Production Center. On January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan was cordoned off by the Chinese authorities, closing all industrial activities and outflow of PPE.
The supply chain is not only a determinant of public health, but also affects all other factors responsible for the health of individuals and communities. Despite their critical importance, the health supply chain still exists as an addendum to health public policies and investments. In many health care organizations, the health supply chain is narrowed down to the purchasing or sourcing unit.
flexibility of supply chains
Subsequently, the rest of the world realized the gravity of the situation and the extraordinary effects of this pandemic on health care systems around the world.
Several factors affect the health supply chain’s ability to continually meet the range of changing and sometimes conflicting requirements for PPE, vaccines and other medical supplies. Increased global competition for equitable supplies has increased pressure on the supply network, particularly in production capacity and global distribution.
Internally, the health supply chain continues to be fragmented and is difficult to coordinate between various authorities and health care units. This is far from ideal.
Health supply chain management involves managing operations and logistics for supply to meet demand effectively and efficiently. It coordinates and collaborates with partners, suppliers, third-party service providers, frontline workers and those who need health care. The fragmentation of health supply chain management is the reason why most health supply chains continue to struggle during pandemics.
Public authorities and stakeholder groups should recognize the critical importance of building strong and resilient health supply chains connecting those involved in the delivery and management of health care at the global, national and regional levels.
supply chain and health
The overarching goal of designing and operating a health supply chain is to contribute to public health and social welfare while minimizing impacts on the environment. Declaring the health supply chain as a key determinant of health goes beyond the traditional race for efficiency at all costs to management strategy.
Most importantly, it demands the recognition that the supply chain is an integral part of socio-economic resilience and, conversely, vulnerability. For decades, we have justified budget cuts and underinvestment in health care supply chains in the name of financial efficiency. However, while it may provide short-term benefits, it is not sustainable in the long run.