As Canadian hospitals continue to struggle to catch up on the backlog of health needs caused by COVID-19, supply shortages are adding further stress to the system.

The worldwide supply chain slow-down has affected products from computers to tires, and health care has not been spared. 

“We are told by our hospitals that they’re seeing upwards of 600 individual product disruptions every week, and that has been their experience since early spring 2021,” said Kendra Frey, a vice-president at HealthPRO, which helps 1,300 Canadian health-care facilities with procurement. 

Transportation slowdowns, labour shortages and a lack of raw materials have all added to the problem. According to Frey, a shortage of aluminum has affected the supply of crutches, and a fire in a resin factory led to shortages of several materials.

Manufacturers also switched gears earlier in the pandemic when medical supplies for surgeries weren’t needed for a number of months, which means stockpiles are low or nonexistent as hospitals play catch-up on surgeries, she said. 

“It’s a game of supply chain whack-a-mole … basically, if you don’t have a stockpile of every single thing that you would use in a year, you’re likely going to experience a disruption.” she said.

Frey said some hospitals have even pulled clinicians off the floor to work on procurement. HealthPro has also had to help facilitate a loan of surgical gloves between two hospitals at opposite ends of the country when one of the hospitals was mere hours from cancelling surgeries. 

Kendra Frey from HealthPRO Procurement Services Inc. said hospitals across the country are trying to help each other with supply issues. (Kendra Frey/LinkedIn)

Larger workload for hospital workers

Workers at the three campuses of The Ottawa Hospital have also faced a larger workload, which includes chasing down supplies, according to the nurses’ union.

“It’s sutures, staplers, it’s gloves and dressing supplies, things like that are not available in the ORs (operating rooms). And it’s just sort of filtered down to the actual units and wards as well,” said Rachel Muir, bargaining unit president for the Ontario Nurses Association, who represents workers at The Ottawa Hospital.

Muir said nurses are spending a lot of time chasing down supplies and figuring out what replacements have been brought in, or finding ways to make due what whey they do have.

Muir said they have started asking expectant mothers to hang on to heart monitor belts to use at their next appointments, a supply that is usually disposable. Nurses also have to use gowns and sterile drapes, normally intended for specific procedures, for other uses, which could then dwindle the supply of materials for those procedures.

“It’s putting more work on their colleagues because now while they’re chasing something down, somebody has to step in and cover their patients,” she said.

The Ottawa Hospital says it’s working hard to make sure supplies are well-stocked, while the nurses’ union says workers are seeing a larger workload as they chase down necessary materials. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

After close to two years of working during a pandemic and with shortages predicted to last possibly for years, Muir worries whether staff can handle the added pressure. 

“It seems like something very minor, but it’s really not when you think of what else the nurses have dealt with and continue to deal with. This is just another thing, and I do wonder [if] for some nurses, this will be their straw that breaks the camel’s back,” she said 

“Whether we like it or not, eventually it’s going to have an impact on the care we can give.”

In an emailed statement, The Ottawa Hospital said no surgeries or procedures have been affected by the shortage, nor are clinicians doing procurement work there.

The hospital says it will continue to monitor the situation and is working with manufacturers and their supply partners to find solutions such as “expanding warehouse and inventory capacity to ensure we are well-stocked with items, planning further ahead than usual, and working with alternative suppliers for certain products.”


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