Insights April 2022

Supplying the Healthcare Front Lines: Future Pandemic Planning Can Learn Much from Purpose-Driven Companies

Ernie Philip


It has been just over two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Looking back now, it was a humbling, frustrating, terrifying, but sometimes rewarding, experience leading a healthcare company through a time of crisis.

Healthcare suppliers played a vital role in supporting front-line workers and communities during the pandemic. Not all suppliers stayed true to their purpose, but the best ones never strayed from their mandate of delivering critical personal protective equipment (PPE) items and timely support to the front lines. While operating during the pandemic, we learned valuable lessons that my organization will never forget.

When the pandemic began, Canada was not ready for the challenges that awaited the healthcare system and the supply chain. No one was. With medical supplies at their highest demand, governments had no choice but to turn to individual vendors and importers for PPE items, which drove up prices exorbitantly. Often, governments were competing for the same items with profiteers who were playing off one another to increase profits.

I will never forget those early days of the pandemic. I gathered with my team to strategize how we would source, receive, store, allocate and ship high volumes of supplies to COVID-19 hot spots in the most equitable way possible. As we tried to find the best way to approach this challenge, we realized that our company’s purpose was our North Star. Corporate leaders spend time developing a company's vision, but at times of stress, purpose provides the most value. 

There were critical decisions to be made. When others were price gouging, auctioning off products to the highest bidder, or supplying to larger and more profitable clients first, we made decisions based on our purpose of “together improving care”, which we rallied behind at every level of the organization across the country. 

First, we decided that all PPE supplies should go to the hospital front lines and long-term care facilities. Next, we looked at employee safety. Like most, our office teams were working from home, but we had 300 warehouse staff who were essential to delivering critical products. While we implemented safeguards to protect them, they were aware of the possible risks. Still, they stood behind our purpose to provide the needed supplies to front-line workers. Calls to our customer support team skyrocketed. Our agents lived in a chaotic, high-stress and emotional situation, but they demonstrated great empathy to help our customers in need.

These teams were our Medline heroes, and I will forever be grateful.

Throughout the pandemic, we forced ourselves to deal with the reality of the situation, and we never overpromised. Our motivation was helping Canadians. We actively worked with our global supply chain network to source products, and we empowered our employees to make decisions at all levels. If a decision improved care for Canadians, we entrusted them to make it. If we made mistakes, we had each other's back and applied the learning to move forward. 

There has been much learning across the healthcare system throughout the pandemic, but innovation and future planning must continue. It will not be the last time we experience a healthcare emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Canada did after SARS, it would be tempting to go back to business as usual. But policy leaders need to engage industry now to take action to ensure Canada is better prepared for the next crisis. 

As their plans take shape, they must reimagine how our healthcare system approaches challenges and solutions. As the leader of Medline Canada, I am thankful that our purpose of “together improving care” drives our company. It is what has guided us through a challenging time and allowed us to support one another and a sector in crisis when it mattered the most. 

Being purpose-driven is an easily thrown-around line but identifying that purpose outside a crisis is essential. Staying true to that purpose can be hard, but it becomes infinitely more important during times of crises.

Establishing holistic, purpose-driven guidance could well serve our country’s post-pandemic planning. It could create better national cohesion in approaches to health crises and speed up the decision-making process. It could also open the door to reimagining the voices and insights coming to the table and the expertise being drawn upon for innovative solutions.

When time is such a valuable commodity, collaborating with sector partners can help identify new and unique ways to approach a problem and find a path forward. A pan-Canadian emergency preparedness coalition spanning private and public expertise would ensure clear purpose, robust capabilities and a path ahead that can evolve with new and emerging challenges.

From my perspective, the supply chain is a crucial factor in effective health systems, yet it is often absent from conversations about surgical backlogs. In forecasting future pandemics, there is value in recognizing that supply chain partners use methodologies to link people, processes and supplies with time and cost savings. They can assess and analyze the supply management challenges and develop new ways to increase efficiency, reduce waste and deliver financial savings while ensuring care outcomes. 

Bringing diverse and robust knowledge and experience to a purpose-driven approach to managing a healthcare crisis could substantially benefit Canadians – not just in times of crises, but in planning to mitigate the impact of crises in the future.  

About the Author(s)

Ernie Philip is the president of Medline Canada


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