The healthcare sector has been impacted by COVID-19 more than most. Everything seems to be changing – all at once. While telehealth and virtual care had been expanding for years prior to the pandemic, the last year have fueled the acceleration of the changes.
This article is based on our webinar, Transforming the Healthcare Supply Chain: The Convergence of New and Now, which is available on-demand. We asked noted experts to share their insights on the healthcare trends that are reshaping the industry.
In 2019 – months prior to the pandemic – a survey showed that 41% of Canadians would like to have video visits with their physician, but only 4% of physicians had access to that technology.
...70% agree that virtual health care represents the future of health care.
Fast-forwarding to mid-2020, or midway through the first wave of the pandemic, an Environics study showed that 1 in 2 Canadians indicated that COVID-19 has made it more difficult to access health care. The same study also found that 70% agree that virtual care represents the future of health care.
The seismic changes should make every healthcare professional ask some critical questions.
- How can my business stay one step ahead of the continued growth of virtual care?
- How are we approaching the diagnostics end of our business, specifically the delivery of healthcare elements?
- What about the physical components of my supply chain?
- How are patient trends and technology advancements impacting supply chain strategies?
- How do optimize my healthcare supply chain management model in the midst of dramatic changes?
In a virtual care model, the doctor still of course interacts with a patient. But in order to do a complete diagnosis, the doctor may need to have tests performed. Traditionally, the patient would go to a lab for the tests to be performed. However, in this ‘new normal’, components are shipped to the patient for self-testing in the comfort of their homes.
And then there’s the post-diagnosis stage: the delivery of care to the patient. That may include prescriptions, supporting medical devices, and so on. This becomes the physical component of the system, when the industry starts to centralize healthcare into a virtual element.
What's happened is the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us as physicians to rethink the way in which we deliver care
Let’s back up for a moment to discuss the concept of virtual care and its ramifications for the healthcare industry and for everyday Canadians.
Prior to the pandemic, the method of delivering care had certain inefficiencies which have been addressed head on this past year.
According to Dr. Shaan Chugh, a member of the Medical Director Program at Cleveland Clinic and Purolator’s Chief Medical Director, “the old method of delivering care had certain inefficiencies”.
“Imagine an elderly patient who is seeing a family physician, and let’s say the complaint is abdominal pain. The doctor prescribes pain medication. Because the medications don’t help, the doctor may decide to refer the patient on to a gastroenterologist. The wait list to see a gastroenterologist could be up to six months. At that time, the gastroenterologist thinks we probably need to do a colonoscopy.”
“They find out at that time that she has colon cancer, something that could have been treated upfront, potentially at an earlier stage of disease progression. This process of care delivery is slow, and simply not responsive to the patient’s needs.”
Dr. Chugh sees the emergence of a more patient-centric model – a kind of hub where one or more physicians surround a patient. Depending on the circumstances, they all provide care at the same time, as a collective unit.
This contrasts sharply to the model widely used today, in which the patient typically waits for weeks, even months, to see a sub-specialist for a diagnosis. It also has upside for patients’ families and caregivers.
“A family member taking care of an elderly relative may not experience the lost income, for example, that’s common when accompanying them to physical appointments, if that patient can be seen virtually instead” adds Dr. Chugh.
We’re talking about improved timeliness of diagnosis, and we’re also closing any communication gaps between the patient, the primary care physician, the specialist, the sub-specialist, and family members. We may also reduce readmission rates to hospital.
Virtual care isn’t immune to the Amazon Effect
As healthcare leaders plan for future health care trends, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that people are expecting a virtual care experience similar to that of a retail/e-commerce experience. That is, quick, simple and seamless.
“My experience with an Uber or an Amazon”, says Marc Thomson, Chief Operating Officer of Switch Health, “defines my expectations of a health care experience, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. Once you’ve had a positive experience, and decrease that time frame in which you can get something, that’s what we hold our standard as. There’s a very high bar.”
Delivering quality care to the underserved: The other promise of the virtual care model
Mr. Thomson’s company, Switch Health, is a pioneer in the areas of technology transfer, licensing distribution and deployment of broader diagnostic devices, services and secure platforms.
He believes that the potential to deliver a high level of health care to traditionally remote communities is a huge opportunity.
“Outside of what we can do in tier 1, tier 2, tier 3 markets, think about the tens of thousands of Canadians in far off geographic locations. Imagine giving them access that would otherwise be only accessible in tier 1 and tier 2 markets. That’s precisely where we’re going.”
Dr. Chugh is excited by the potential to provide quality care to underserved communities.
“It’s our duty as Canadians to ensure that elderly individuals have the same access to care regardless of their postal code.”
“Think about this scenario. An electrophysiologist or cardiologists are available at the touch of a button to an 85-year-old patient who’s admitted in a long-term care centre in a remote part of the Northwest Territories, a place where they may never have had easy access to a physician.”
The growing need for physical components – and logistics – to support the new virtual care model
As the new virtual care hub model grows, so does the need to deliver the critical physical components that support it.
Currently, supplies like diagnostic elements are typically delivered directly to hospitals, care facilities, and pharmacies – the same places that the patient travels to access them. In the new world, logistics will need to support the movement of physical products in markedly more intricate and complex ways. Today and into the future, best practices in medical supplies logistics require the bar to be set at its highest level.
Mr. Thomson points to an ongoing initiative with Purolator as one example of how healthcare providers and manufacturers can pivot their healthcare supply chain to new realities of this health care trend.
“In this one national testing program, individuals receiving virtual health who cross borders or need a test, can actually receive kits and required tools to administer the required diagnostic elements.”
“The concept of diagnostics in the home, specimen collection in the home or remotely, isn’t new”, adds Jason Hern, Purolator’s Director of Healthcare Strategy. “Think about some of the DNA collection companies that are out there today. It’s a similar process – but the urgency in this case is all-together more acute.”
Thomson concurs. “The results of my DNA test can wait. But there’s a profound time-sensitive element to my diagnosis of COVID-19 or a serious chronic condition. When you’re dealing with people’s lives, air-tight logistics becomes, well, literally life-and-death.”
Mr. Thomson explains a current scenario for a client. “A nurse virtually walks a patient through the specimen collection, and then through the proper return packaging of the specimen. It then gets set outside for contactless pickup by Purolator. The kit that they have contains all of the packaging, all of the labeling to be able to execute that shipment back to the lab.”
Critical health care requires critical logistics
Mr. Hern says delivery speed and reach will help fulfill on the enormous potential of virtual care. Canada’s sheer size poses some unique challenges. According to Mr. Hern, “There are so many sections of this country that have so many different horizontal and vertical stackings. As a result, custom solutions really are mandatory.”
Purolator has been progressively expanding its reach in Canada for decades. It currently services 99.9% of all postal codes. However, reach without solid logistics to back it up is an empty promise, says Mr. Hern.
Reach is highly important to ongoing success of virtual care. But the other half of the story you simply cannot ignore is logistics.
“Many different logistics models exist,” he adds, “but when speaking specifically about reaching more isolated communities, air travel is crucial. There are some excellent northern airlines that are reaching these locations every day. It’s about connecting to those airlines in a timely way – making sure that the physical movement of products is happening as quickly as the patient needs and expects. At Purolator, we’ve had great success in building out our Mission Critical service.”
Mr. Hern says that Purolator has dedicated a portion of its network to the urgent needs of the healthcare industry. “Our mission critical service can reach the majority of Canadian communities in hours or less than a day. It has been instrumental in both reaching communities with products, then bringing them back for the purpose of diagnostics.”
Virtual care is here to stay. Plan your strategy – and be prepared to evolve it
The pandemic has irrevocably altered a host of industries and sectors. Healthcare is definitely one of these. All the evidence suggests that virtual care is here to stay. That will put pressure on every healthcare professional to pivot – and pivot quickly. Fortunately, supply chains and logistics are evolving quickly to match the new reality. Now is the time to seize the future – and the opportunities.