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Unmasking society’s supply shortcoming

Eline N. Lincklaen Arriens

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.

COVID-19 has highlighted society’s failure to meet demand. Is data sharing the answer?

A wake up call

In the wake of COVID-19, people around the world are grappling with how to deal with the pandemic. This outbreak has unmasked how unprepared countries around the world were to face a crisis in areas such as medical care, social care (such as unemployment benefits), and healthcare facilities. An obvious example of this is the shortage of face masks and hand sanitisers.

In January, when COVID-19 began spreading across Asia, face masks and hand sanitisers became short in supply as people began stockpiling.1 This fear and shortage spread and worsened throughout Europe and America, for example, once reality hit that COVID-19 was more than an epidemic and was in fact spreading across the continents.2 Today, face masks and hand sanitisers (and surgical gloves!)3 are a rarity in stores and there is pressure on suppliers to deliver more. This shortage poses a serious risk to the health workers across the world who treat sick patients (not just those with COVID-19) every day and is forcing some of them to perform their activities without basic protection.4 This means that, beyond putting hospital staff at risk by not having enough medical supplies, others frequenting hospitals are also at risk. For patients in the hospital who have respiratory issues, this could be fatal.  

To combat this, institutions such as hospitals and businesses can look at current data sharing practices to optimise their supply chain to prevent another shortage, whether in normal operations or to face extreme circumstances such as this. An example of this will be elaborated on below.

Regarding the other issues mentioned, such as the social systems in place in several countries that currently cannot support the population and the economy, I will discuss this further in future pieces.

Sharing supply data

So, what can we do about the shortage of supply?

An example is hospitals sharing inventory data. To address supply shortages, several institutions (including hospitals) are looking to share information on their inventory to automate re-ordering with their suppliers (e.g. when the stock goes below a given quantity) and enable the opportunity of collaboration, typically sharing any stock surplus with other institutions that are in need.5 This includes stating what is available, in which quantities, and where it is located. Hospitals are now looking to pool and manage their inventory, as well as share data, within their health care system and potentially across health systems within their region. This includes sharing data on their inventory and what supplies they need for their patients or – even better – for the forecast of the volume and type of patients they need to cater for.

Several hospitals are already practicing something like this. One example is the Netherlands and ICU beds.6 In the Netherlands, ICU bed availabilities are managed at a national level. In services such as obstetrics, several hospitals that would otherwise be competitors report their bed availability at a regional level so that beds can be managed as a single resource and allocated through one call centre. This means that when one hospital has a new patient but does not have an available bed, they can check for availabilities and send their patient to a hospital that has a bed and can treat them. The potential friction to implementing a system like this is the natural competition in countries where the health sector is privatised. However, the promotion of citizens’ well-being is described in the very first of European Union’s goals,7 and in a time of pandemic the interest of society as a whole should be privileged in respect to the dynamics of a free market.

Beyond looking at best practices and what already exists, in the wake of the pandemic several organisations are actively looking to share data to ensure that medical staff (and the general population that want these items) have enough supplies. In order to pursue new data sharing practices, we first need to accept that good quality data is needed to address the supply shortage. If data is not up to standard, it is irrelevant and can disrupt innovation and solutions by providing incorrect information.

In a crisis, we need data – collected, analysed, and shared in real time – to provide insights about what is working, what is safe, and what is not.8 When there is a shortage of supplies, hospitals and providers need to experiment with new approaches and share information with one another to learn and develop solutions. Good and quick communication with fast feedback loops can accelerate action and results to slow the virus’s spread and “flatten the curve”. But first, we need to get there and ensure data is at a good standard internally, then we can look to share this information and create initiatives together that can withstand a crisis.

What's next? 

In the meantime, what is next for us?

I pose the question to the readers: how can data sharing mitigate the shortage of supply? And going forward, how can we prevent this shortage from happening again?

(C) March 2020, Hank Williams
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(C) March 2020, Hank Williams