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When the medical supply chain becomes personal

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

A close relative was recently hospitalized. He's recovering now, thankfully, and the care he received was incredible, but the whole process brought to light how something as impersonal as the medical supply chain can have a big impact on you and your family.

In our case it was about watching as my relative underwent three surgeries with the generic sized trach tubes, which are used after doctors surgically create another breathing passage for patients. Hospitals inventory sizes and types that are most common for people requiring emergency care, however, my relative required the trach as a contingency in the event an alternate airway was needed.  The size and style required was not commonly used and therefore, not readily available. The doctor also used parts from two kits to achieve the desired result. The situation prompted us to think about improving the medical supplies supply chain for the patient as well as the service provider.

Challenges abound in the medical supply chain; complex regulations, and controls for temperature, sterilization and other hazards that could ruin sensitive equipment. Not to mention an expanding inventory to meet the needs of greatly-varied human anatomy — like a very narrow trachea.

Here's what any supply chain manager (or patient) should keep in mind:


Medical supply inventory is everywhere, according to execs for DHL Supply Chain. Just one medical device company could have up to 100 small distribution centers making the system not only expensive but hard to navigate.

Inventory management is essential. And good data coupled with the right technology can help keep regularly used equipment readily available in-house.

But a surgeon may not know exactly what they will need until the surgery is actually underway. That often means taking multiple surgery kits into the operating room and ending with a large assortment of unused supplies.

A hub would consolidate inventory, simplify receiving for hospitals, cut costs and provide a reverse logistics process that gets unused equipment sterilized and back in use faster. 

There may be emerging solutions as last mile and last yard services expand.


Consolidation can’t happen without collaboration.

Hospitals and suppliers should collaborate so medical gear with expiration dates are used in time. This buyer, supplier collaboration can also make for better just-in-time deliveries and better forecasting.

Better forecasting means suppliers can more easily collaborate on deliveries.

The “Transformation of the U.S. Medical Device Supply Chain” white paper calls these types of deliveries “milk runs.” Suppliers deliver to a warehouse hub and drivers consolidate supplies and deliveries. It’s a system that has been reducing production downtime in the auto industry.

A University of Illinois supply chain expert, also using the auto industry as an example, writes about a hub that brings manufacturers, suppliers and the suppliers’ suppliers together. The idea being that collaboration between the providers of the raw materials and the end users could result in better, more efficient products. Designs and manufacturing processes could be simplified and costs reduced.

The human body isn’t going to get any less complex, and the more we know about it the more personalized the medical supplies we need to treat it will become. But that doesn’t mean we can’t simplify and improve on the supply chain that puts these life-saving tools in the hands of doctors.


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