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COVID-19 may present a “forcing function” for change

By Robert M Walton

If there is a silver lining to COVID-19, it's shining a very bright light on how our health system and its supply chain operate, and how unstated norms (like congregating) are built into certain economic models (such as public air travel).

As we have all acknowledged by now, COVID-19 is a pandemic. This situation is exposing the limits of what our heroic healthcare workers can accomplish in what is, in the short run, a model relying on "brute force and raw talent." I use this phrase because COVID-19 has exposed a wide variation in policies and practices, in both the public and private sectors – variations which challenge our front-line care delivery workers, and their patients. We’ve also exposed the unintended consequences of decades of aggressive offshoring, largely based on "lowest price" without regard for strategic impact and whether in PPE, ventilators, drugs or other strategically important products. Furthermore, the supply chain is straining to respond quickly and at scale, which has not always delivered the quality medical equipment required in these often life or death situations.

On top of these healthcare challenges, the crisis has also presented us with broad economic consequences, from rapid job losses and drastically reduced income, to potential destruction of sub-sectors of the economy especially vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. While some of this economic distress is rightfully self-imposed to protect lives and public health, we're learning that industries whose business models rely on people congregating in relatively tight spaces (e.g. airlines, restaurants, retail) may be irrevocably changed, forced to redesign and restructure, or even to cease as we know them. Worse yet, debt leveraged or under-capitalized businesses of any kind, are unlikely to survive.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging, it is also potentially instructional. If one can imagine a positive outcome in this situation, beyond our highest calling to save as many lives as possible, it may be that this presents a "forcing function" for change, one for reframing our thinking about how our healthcare system and supply chain work, and for redesigning business models challenged by the crisis. Innovation is largely created through the imposition of constraints; in essence, innovation is the imaginative and intelligent response which overcomes or gets around these constraints.

We have the opportunity to utilize the constraints exposed in this crisis to overcome institutional inertia, expose cognitive biases and challenge complacency.

We can and should emerge with a stronger, better designed health system, and a supply chain which produces high quality medical equipment in a timely manner and at scale (likely with less offshoring). We will hopefully design new businesses or business models which can succeed, and hopefully thrive, in the "new normal" we create, hopefully with less reliance on offshoring and debt loading, and properly capitalized to “weather the storms” of an unplanned crisis, like COVID-19.

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