The reasons hospitals and other health care providers rely on imported goods are obvious—in an era of pressed budgets, cheaper supplies can make a huge difference to a hospital's bottom line. But a growing chorus of hospitals, federal officials and GPOs are worried that the money saved won't be worth it if a major disease outbreak or natural disaster hits the U.S., and supplies are hard to come by.
The potential for disruption in the health care supply chain has grown in significance enough that the Department of Commerce is in the middle of a formal study on the matter, Stephen Curren, deputy program manager for HHS's Critical Infrastructure Protection program, told me this week for a story I'm writing for the July issue of H&HN. That study, which should come out later this year, will look at key products that health care providers might need in a pinch—like gloves and facemasks—and their projected availability in a major national or even global emergency.
In part, the fall 2009 H1N1 outbreak, when masks and gloves were suddenly hard to come by, precipitated some of the growing interest in potential supply chain disruptions. That time around, fragmented communication between vendors, state governments handling stockpiles and hospitals were partly to blame for the dearth of supplies on the front lines—but it would be foolish to completely disregard the increasingly far-flung supply chain as a factor. According to statistics provided by the Premier healthcare alliance, over 90 percent of all face masks and exam gloves are manufactured overseas.
So what's the solution? Short of returning in a major way to U.S. manufacturing, which some of the folks I've talked to recently have suggested encouraging through incentives to produce key products domestically, there aren't a whole lot of options. But the supply chain experts I've spoken with say there are a handful of things hospitals can do to protect themselves from a repeat of 2009—including reading the disaster management plans for contracts with overseas vendors, firming up communication lines with HHS and their local states to know what's stockpiled where and coming up with product substitution plans in the event primary suppliers can't come through.
It's a fascinating issue—one that filters through the global world we live in but with the potential to wreak havoc on disaster relief efforts for future, unforeseen events. I'll leave you with the words of Mickey Sparrow, material manager for Tuomey Healthcare System, a 300-bed hospital in Sumter, South Carolina. Sparrow, who firmly believes there needs to be more domestic manufacturing of key products like gloves and exam gloves, remembers just who desperate his hospital got during the H1N1 crisis.
"We ran out of products," Sparrow told me. And that's something that no hospital wants to go through again.