When COVID-19 shut down most of their main suppliers in China, health-care agencies worldwide scrambled to find new sources of personal protective gear, lab equipment and drugs. Manitoba had to get creative by finding local manufacturers of sanitizer, swabs and gowns, and using human-resources data to estimate how much PPE staff would need.
Now, it’s one of seven provinces participating in a study that will map out Canada’s health-care supply chain and create a data-tracking model that aims to forecast how much health supplies will cost in emergencies just like the one we’re living through.
"It’s like we’re building the bridge we’re driving over at the very same time, under pretty extraordinary circumstances," said Anne Snowdon, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Windsor. "Mobilizing data infrastructure and using that modelling will become wildly important."
Snowdon is leading the study with funding from a COVID-19 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The one-year research project started in June. Using COVID-19 case counts, and supply-chain data provided by provinces, the researchers are figuring out costs, and building what Snowdon calls a "data infrastructure" that’s common in private businesses and retail sectors, but doesn’t exist in Canada’s health departments.
"Health systems have not been doing that. Health Canada has not been doing that. But now, they have very quickly realized how important it is to have data infrastructure where you now can forecast, plan for and understand what resources you’re going to need to be allocating as the pandemic unfolds," Snowdon said.
The first wave of the virus in Canada exposed weaknesses and failures in health-care supply chains, from shortages of personal protective equipment to time-consuming manual daily counting of masks, gloves and other supplies, to a near-complete lack of data collection to track demand for medical supplies, early findings of the study show. Some of the researchers’ preliminary results were published in the academic journal Healthcare Quarterly this month.
In the second wave, researchers are looking at how each province re-organized its health supply chains to meet the demand caused by COVID-19. In Manitoba, that meant a sudden shift to focus on local manufacturing and thinking outside the box to order supplies.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s supply management team followed news of COVID-19’s spread in Asia and started planning in January, earlier than some other jurisdictions. They later engaged the provincial government to try to ensure they had at least a 90-day stock of supplies, and used human resources data to figure out how to distribute PPE to employees, researchers learned.
They’re also trying to determine what health departments learned from the first to the second waves.
"Products are more available now than they were in the first wave because China manufacturing opened up, and at the same time, health systems found alternative suppliers, some in Europe, some in the Middle East and many different countries. The challenge we have is our data infrastructure in Canada, in virtually every province, is so limited," said Snowdon, who trained as a nurse and started studying supply chains years ago as a way to reduce medical errors.
"It actually took a pandemic for many people to say ‘Wow, now I finally get why supply chain is so important.’"
The study is expected to be completed in June 2021.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.