I recently sat down with two executives from a national distributor to have a candid conversation and give them a voice about the distribution industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Healthcare distribution has been America’s unsung hero during this crisis. The way they worked together to source PPE and move it in record time to hotspots will go down in history as one of the top reasons countless lives were saved.
The way all distribution companies responded to the COVID-19 pandemic is a credit to the industry and many have never been prouder in their lives. It’s not just a catch phrase – what they do matters. They’ve never worked so hard and they’re humbled to serve America’s caregivers.
“Distribution has tried bringing their customers exactly what they asked for, and until the pandemic struck, it was great to be lean with just-in-time inventory. But because of that, it’s been nearly impossible to catch up with today’s PPE demands,” said one of the executives.
Distributors are doing everything in their power to make sure doctors’ offices are open because their future depends on it. Providers can’t see patients if supply isn’t on the shelf, but the government needs to take a deep breath and think logically on a path forward.
“The logistics of carrying this much inventory at a physician’s office alone is simply not possible,” explained one of the executives.
There is a huge chasm between supply and expectations. PPE used to be 2-3% of distributors’ business, but now it’s all that they’re selling and chasing. Allocation of PPE is just a start given the new normal. There are shortages of swabs now and when a vaccine hits the market, it will affect needle and syringe manufacturers. For those who think distribution is a simple business of moving boxes, that is far from reality.
“There are expectations that distributors are starting to stockpile,” one executive said. “Providers want increased volume on hand, but there’s no supply available to do it. You can’t flip a switch overnight.”
As distributors originally faced this challenge head on, PPE and other supply sources were shut down in Wuhan, China, but the distribution network was nimble and started sourcing from all over the world. By working together with the federal government and each other, distributors pulled off the nearly impossible task of delivering PPE to hotspots in record time while taking care of their existing customers.
I am overly impressed with the job that medical distribution has done.
A back-to-business campaign should drive the conversation now. Supply chain leaders need to educate people in their facilities. If this coronavirus doesn’t come back due to a successful vaccine, people will forget about it. But there will still be a stockpile of supply due to COVID-19.
Also, due to some government requirements, providers are supposed to have a certain amount of PPE on hand before they reopen. Even in normal times, there wouldn’t be enough PPE to meet some of the government standards for reopening. A factory does not want to add lines for products that are in demand today but may be in significantly less demand in 18 months