SINGAPORE: Personal protective gear like masks and face shields has been in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, and perhaps no one knows this better than a team tasked with ensuring that frontline healthcare workers have whatever they need.
Such things are just a few out of the 2,600 items that the team from the National University Hospital’s (NUH) Materials Management Department is in charge of.
Behind the scenes, the team has been ensuring that their colleagues do not run out of the essential “armour” that is needed in the fight in the disease that has infected more than 52,000 people in Singapore.
“We have to keep more stock just in case there’s an event where the vendor has a stock-out issue, then we’ll be able to support the end user. So therefore we stock up a little bit, especially those fast-moving (items), whereby we want to keep about a month’s worth of supplies,” said logistics manager Ryan Chiam.
These fast-moving items include blood tubes, needles and gauze, he said.
He was speaking during a media tour of the department’s storage facility at the basement in one of NUH’s buildings.
MORE MANUAL WORK TO BE DONE
The heart of the team of more than 50 staff members are the storekeepers. They typically do a physical check to find out what is needed by each clinic, ward or operating theatre and inform a team member, who then gives the go-ahead for these items to be issued.
The storekeepers walk down rows and rows of items arranged according to their material group at the storage facility, loading up their trolleys while armed with a list.
They then push these trolleys to the different destinations within the hospital grounds, and help to unpack and arrange the products in utility rooms. It is this manual work that has increased with the pandemic, as the need for replenishment comes faster.
“PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is something that we used to top up maybe two or three times a week. Now, we have to go every day,” said Mr Kenny Tang, who heads the team.
Mr Tang said that many storekeepers have been with the hospital for decades, with half of the team aged between 50 and 68.
“Being an old hospital, there’s very limited IT (Information Technology) solutions or technology that we can leverage on, so it’s still a very manual process.", he said.
“It’s very hard on my staff. This is Kent Ridge right? The terrain is not a flat thing where you can go around easily."
WORKING WITH A LEANER TEAM
On top of that, the team also receives a higher number of urgent requests for supplies.
Senior executive assistant Lim Chun Bin said that before COVID-19, there would be two to three such requests a day, but now there are about 10. There were also fewer items being requested then. Now, there could be more than 20 items being requested.
“Usually they are requesting for those protective covers, like the gowns, the masks, and stuff like that,” she said.
“The requests come in quite fast, so even on my non-working days, I also do check my email and try to respond to them,” she added.
The team also provides supplies to support the medical teams providing care at foreign worker dormitories, and around 40 per cent of their COVID-19 related supplies like N95 masks, gloves and gowns go there.
The increased workload comes at a time when the team on any given day has become leaner, due to split-team work arrangements. The employees work alternate days, including on weekends, and work longer hours each day. They are supported by temporary staff.
The full-time employees now work from 8am to 9pm.
ENSURING SUPPLIES EVEN WHEN IT’S DIFFICULT
Other than performing more manual work, the team has also had to get creative in making sure sufficient supplies are kept on hand.
Corporate gift vendors may not be the first to come to mind when trying to get a supply of face shields, but they are precisely the people Mr Tang and his team reached out to.
Mr Tang said that they had to turn to “non-traditional” sources.
While most of the PPE, like masks, was drawn from a national stockpile, there were some things, like face shields, that the hospital had to bring in on its own, he said.
“Face shields were one of those things that we needed to bring in quickly and at a time where everybody's trying to grab the face shields,” he said.
With traditional medical supply vendors facing restrictions and export limitations, they relied on these gift vendors to get supplies from China, he said.
Another issue during the pandemic has been an increase in prices for items like disposable pillow covers bandages, dressings and alcohol swabs, he said.
“We are beginning to see vendors increasing their prices, and we are trying to manage them as well to make sure that, you know, any increase is reasonable,” he said.
“Part of our responsibility is to manage the healthcare costs as well.”
LESSONS AND MOVING FORWARD
While it may not be possible to improve on every aspect of manual work, on the cards are efforts to include technology that can relieve storekeepers of at least some work.
“We don’t have much technology … but we are going to introduce some to help relieve them so that they can be more efficient in their work,” Mr Chiam said.
From this month, storekeepers will no longer have to physically go to wards to check on the level of stocks. The hospital is introducing a system which involves nurses alerting the department on low supplies through technology.
“You will actually save so-called the manpower for this person to go to the ward to check stocks,” Mr Chiam added.
“One of the key things we did is that now, we tried to collect more data, after going through COVID-19, at least the first few months,” said Mr Tang.
Among the data is the utilisation of the PPE, which he believes will come in handy in the face of another pandemic.
At the end of the day, Mr Tang is very clear on the role that the team plays in the hospital eco-system- an important one, even if it is not in the spotlight.
“We fill the hands that heal. To me, these are six very meaningful words that describe what we do.”