​COVID-19’s Effect on the Medical Supply Chain

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on September 08, 2022 # COVID-19

covid supply chainCOVID-19 has impacted the world. From social isolation to the availability of gas, groceries, and medical necessities, we have felt the crunch. As the effects of COVID-19 linger, we must consider how supply chain issues are to be addressed.

The Supply Chain

Supply shortages in aluminum, computer chips, paper pulp, and other materials create a ripple effect on health care providers, hospitals, and other health care systems.

When people think of medical supplies, they think of the finished product. But, we must understand how supply chains work to know how medical supplies are affected by supply chain disruption.

The supply chain begins when a material is sourced for a product. For example, the needle of a syringe is made from steel. The maker of a syringe requires the materials from a steel plant to obtain the steel. That means steelworkers and the proper equipment are vital. Once the needle for a syringe is made, it goes on to the next step, eventually becoming part of a syringe. From there, the syringe is shipped and received by the medical facility.

Supply Chain Issues

COVID-19 placed an undue amount of pressure on medical device makers. The high demand from hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare sources forced makers to try to keep up. But, the makers of supplies like masks couldn’t produce the number of masks needed to protect medical workers.

The lack of needed medical devices or supplies has led doctors, hospitals, and other care systems to do what they’ve never done before: ask their community to donate gently used devices such as crutches.

Effects on Health Care Systems

Health care providers worldwide continue to report shortages in medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Many of these supplies are hard to find because of a few reasons. Some of these reasons are:

  • Difficult to find supplies. Almost all hospitals and health care systems in the U.S. report challenges in getting vital supplies. Two causes of the shortages are price increases and shortages of essential items.
  • Vendors. Health care providers faced shortages from their regular suppliers. As a result, they used other vendors to get the medical and pharmaceutical items required to care for their patients.
  • Raw material issues. All over the world, companies and manufacturers were dealt a blow because raw materials were increasingly hard to procure.

Risk Factors and Challenges for Health Care Supply Chain

The pandemic showed the world structural weaknesses that exist in the health care system. Several medical supplies or pharmaceuticals rely on materials from other parts of the world. Lockdowns increased the scarcity of the materials or items necessary to manufacture vital health care supplies. The lockdowns and decreased access to all aspects of the supply chain led to the realization that health care systems need to change how they operate. Health care practitioners targeted these areas for change.

  • Inadequacy in resilience. The shortages of medical supplies emphasized the need for health care systems to have systems that can adapt to pandemics or local public health crises. In addition, health care personnel learned they must be prepared for post-pandemic and potentially new diseases. When supply chain issues are addressed, the health care provider can improve patient care while helping the financial security of the medical provider.
  • Absence of communication. Unfortunately, health care systems continue to be plagued with shortages of crucial medical supplies. One of the reasons providers face problems with their medical devices and supply stock is the lack of a central information system. Hospitals often rely on receiving their supplies quickly and are often unaware of how low their supply is before they place an order. In this case, visibility includes quick access to centralized data. When inventory isn’t centralized and easily accessible, determining what’s in stock, needed, or potentially necessary for the future is challenging.
  • Increasing costs. The increased demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment increased prices. Because of how hospitals or providers order their supplies, they may need to order alternatives to their preferred brands. In addition, hospitals are training nurses to change how they keep up with inventory and orders. Becker’s Hospital Review projects that the cost of medical supplies will outpace the salaries of medical personnel.

When the influx of COVID-19 cases began, health care workers found they faced delays or needed to order supplies earlier than usual. As a result, most organizations shifted how they ordered supplies and kept track of their inventory. The result was many organizations increased their stock to weather shortages or disruptions.

Continued Supply Chain Disruptions

Health care providers and hospitals still face supply chain issues. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to update the medical device and discontinuation list. Throughout COVID-19, the FDA has kept up with the ever-changing medical supply chain disruptions. The administration stays on top of supplies that continue to face shortages and supplies that are no longer in short supply. By publishing a list of supplies that are in short supply or removed from the list, they ensure the public is aware of the state of the medical supply chain.

The Future of the Medical Supply Chain

Previously, manufacturers housed their factories in countries that were inexpensive to manufacture their goods. At the same time, the companies also paid less money to their workers than they would in more expensive countries. COVID-19 has shifted how companies view how and where they manufacture their products. Having their products closer to areas with high demand on their supply outweighs cost-saving measures.

Health care providers and systems are changing how they run their inventory structure.

  • Many hospital administrators recognize the lack of communication between those who keep inventory and those who order merchandise. As a result, they have worked with their internal and external suppliers to ensure there isn’t a disruption in their medical supply stock. Additionally, while keeping an eye on their inventory, administrators implanted a system to find approved alternatives to the supplies.
  • Another strategy is to ask doctors and nurses to conserve the available supplies. Administrators have worked with medical staff to find viable solutions to preserve and maintain their inventory.
  • Some medical providers have paid for expedited shipping. However, the need for specific supplies and the potential supply chain disruptions lead to hospitals paying for rush shipping to ensure they don’t run low or out of critical items.

Health care administrators can’t predict the future of the supply chain. Shortages occurred before COVID-19 affected the global supply of medical supplies. Now, as the world is shifting to a post-pandemic routine, it’s hard to predict how the supply chain will react. There is always the chance that another disease or illness will affect any part of the supply chain. And recent world events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also disrupt supply chains. As a result, we may face continued supply chain issues as medical systems adjust and adapt to the effects of global events.

Christina Sisti, DPS, MPH, MS is a bioethicist and health care policy advocate. She works to create awareness and improve health care policy for those with long-term health issues.

This publication was supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $160,000 with 100% funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS or the U.S. government.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.