Overcoming Supply Shortages, From the Pandemic to Today

Dec 06, 2021
Healthcare provider in supply closet

When Everything Was in Short Supply, Except Dedication to Patients

In the beginning, there was nothing. No gloves, no disposable gowns, no hand sanitizer.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. During the first few weeks of the pandemic in March and April 2020, some things were in abundance – like frustration and confusion.

“No one knew where the next shipment of PPE [personal protective equipment] was coming from,” said Angela Hensel, Executive Director of Afaxys Group Services.

When healthcare providers tasked with stocking their clinics look back to those chaotic days, it’s still easy to feel unsettled. But for Hensel and her customer engagement team at Afaxys, there’s also a feeling of pride. That during one of their customers’ most daunting challenges, they were able to step up and help provide the products patients needed. And when those products were unavailable, they could at least provide the centers’ small teams of doctors and office managers with some answers.

“Even when you give us bad news, they told us, it’s helpful because then we don’t have to go figure that out for ourselves,” said Kelsey Kob, customer engagement manager at Afaxys.

Hensel and her team made sure their community and public health provider customers had as much information as they could handle. Each week, they sent out an email with updates from distributors, detailing which supplies were available and which were on allocation, meaning those with purchase limits. At one point, one distributor had 3,000 products on allocation.

They also went looking for critical PPE. Hensel spent hours researching and vetting dozens of new suppliers, many from overseas with limited presence online. While many customers know Afaxys for their contraceptive products, through the Afaxys GPO, the company can supply all of a health center’s needs. When Kob found a new vendor that started to make its own masks, she was so excited she called her customers immediately.

While the primary focus was on getting supplies, Afaxys worked with suppliers once they were through the initial crush to make sure health centers had access to special pricing to keep costs manageable.

Kob and her colleagues were committed to doing everything they could to keep their customers’ doors open so patients could still be seen. Without access to birth control, many patients faced the risk of unintended pregnancies.

That dedication has paid off in business relationships built on trust. “To this day people are still saying thank you for checking in and supporting us in a time of crisis,” Kob said.

Managing product shortages has resurfaced today, as supply chain troubles have snarled shipments worldwide. Manufacturers are passing price increases on to customers, and perks like free shipping are disappearing, Hensel said.

How can health centers deal with these product uncertainties – or even prepare for the next pandemic-level event? Hensel and Kob share these three tips.

  • Keep your options open. Make sure you have a backup distributor relationship in place and order from that distributor occasionally. During the pandemic, many suppliers allowed only current customers to order. When you are negotiating contracts, try to include “pandemic language” to ensure you have access to allocations.
  • Plan before you need to. It’s important to create a “critical product list” and then make sure you have adequate supplies in reserve. Also, every clinic should have a telehealth strategy. It’s essential to survive.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Removing silos and working together makes you much more powerful than working in isolation. This strategy helped Afaxys’s own teams be more productive as they adopted new collaboration tools and adapted to remote workplaces.

Is it possible to get through another pandemic? It’s a question Hensel would prefer not to consider. “But the answer is yes.”