The threat of COVID-19 has a Nashville nonprofit working with new urgency, helping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention build a system that would track supplies of masks and other protective gear in U.S. hospitals.
The big hurdle isn’t the technology. The issue is getting hospitals comfortable sharing information about their preparedness that — until now — they considered confidential.
Protective masks have become a hot commodity, even within hospitals in Tennessee, where no cases of COVID-19 have appeared. At Nashville General Hospital, employees are coming to supply chain management director Tom Cooper and asking if they can have a box to either take home or use in the hospital.
Cooper tells them those are only available for “clinicians as needed, for their job duties.”
Cooper is feeling more protective of what’s in stock. General Hospital’s distributor, Medline, has already restricted orders. Cooper says he can’t get any more than his usual monthly allotment, even if he wanted it.
“Right now, we’re OK,” he says. “But next month, what could happen?”
The Centers for Disease Control has been trying to avoid such scarcity. Often, there’s plenty of disposable protective gear to go around, but it’s not always in the right places ahead of pandemics.
“It can result in panic purchasing,” says Megan Casey, a nurse epidemiologist with the CDC. “This is where facilities buy as much as possible just to be on the safe side.”
Right now, public health agencies only know what’s in government stockpiles of protective gear. This week, the secretary U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary told Congress that the government has 30 million masks, even though 300 million may be needed.
The nation’s hospital systems have been more of a black box.
Last year, before COVID-19 emerged, the Center for Medical Interoperability in Nashville won a $3 million contract from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to build a system in which hospitals feed in their real-time inventory. Then, the CDC could easily identify who has the greatest need from a digital dashboard.
“It could also potentially provide a tool for hospitals to request personal protective equipment from state or local health departments, stockpiles or even other hospitals that might have excess,” Casey says. “We do see this as a potential opportunity for resource sharing and having those kinds of discussions.”
But the idea of hospitals sharing supplies could get sticky, even in a time of crisis, says Melanie Thomas. She’s the chief information officer at Nashville General, which is one of seven pilot sites. They represent academic medical centers, for-profit and nonprofit hospital chains.
“It’s difficult and scary sometimes to share data and equipment, especially with your competitors, because you want to have the advantage,” she says.
To her point, the other pilot sites are even cautious about publicizing their participation.
Thomas acknowledges that it’s easier for a taxpayer-funded hospital, like Nashville General, to grant access to its inventory system because it’s a smaller hospital with a tight budget. It doesn’t have much equipment to assist others.
“That’s never going to be our problem,” she says. “We want the shared information because we’re going to have just enough.”
And when they run out, she’d like to know where to turn.
The Center for Medical Interoperability started work quietly a few months before COVID-19 emerged. Director of strategy Tommy Ragsdale says even though the system may not be fully operational in time to help with the current outbreak, the looming pandemic has now inspired larger medical centers to cooperate.
“It has definitely created different discussions at the hospital and health system level than we were having in October or November,” Ragsdale says.
At this point, hospitals can’t be forced to participate, but Ragsdale says he hopes they will see the benefit of the greater good.