Masks, face shields, gowns and gloves. For many front-line workers, these are now staples of pandemic life.
Demand for basic personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed, often resulting in high costs, poor quality and widespread shortages. This is what Dr. Neil Naik remembers facing when he began coordinating the response of health care providers to COVID-19 in Waterloo, Ontario, last March.
Dr. Naik, who is chair of the Primary Care Council for his region’s Ontario Health Team, says that when COVID-19 arrived, most of the physicians in his community started messaging one another, trying to figure out what to do next: where to put a COVID-19 assessment site, how to help medical offices in the area stay safe and ̶ like many communities in Canada ̶ where to find PPE.
By the end of March, a community PPE drive was launched to meet the immediate need. The response was overwhelming; people volunteered, and donations poured in. The local golf club even lent out space to receive and store donations.
“No matter what, we would distribute supply to the homeless communities and populations of people who serve them first — that’s our why.” – Dr. Neil Naik
The Waterloo region’s PPE drive ran for 14 weeks.
Yet despite the success of this drive, the fundamental problem remained. Many community providers did not have a stable supply of PPE.
Dr. Neil Naik from PPE Access received a COVID-19 innovation grant from Joule. Learn more about the program and grant recipients
A turning point
“When we did the first PPE drive, we knew it was a temporary solution,” explains Amber French, a Waterloo entrepreneur who worked alongside Dr. Naik during the PPE drive. “Immediately, we began to think about what we could create that would be more sustainable for all of these community providers.”
Shortly after, PPE Access was formed. Using a cooperative model, they started bringing together smaller organizations in need of PPE, to create a single, cohesive group that could make larger purchase orders and get more reasonable prices for PPE.
“Anyone from physicians, specialists, charitable organizations, not for profits and even regional agencies, including public health, fire stations and school boards — they were all really struggling to find reliable PPE supplies at reasonable prices.” – Amber French, PPE Access CEO
“Originally, we were thinking it was going to be mostly for the Waterloo region,” said French. But the interest in their pilot made them think bigger.
The experience in Waterloo echoes the results of a recent survey of CMA members about issues related to PPE access, which indicates that many physicians across the country are still worried about supply and cost. In Ontario specifically, 68% of physicians who work in a community setting said their biggest barrier to acquiring an adequate supply of PPE was cost. Forty-five percent of them said they were having trouble finding a supplier with stock, and 44% were still struggling to find any supply at all.
The key to scale
In mid-September, PPE Access launched, and it began procuring and distributing PPE for more than 300 participating organizations. Their website is designed like an online store; eligible front-line service providers such as physicians’ offices, homeless shelters, hospices and other agencies can order PPE through the non-profit’s program.
Amber French took on the role of CEO.
A managing partner at Catalyst Capital, she has leveraged her large network to build connections with global PPE manufacturers and distributors.
According to French, securing partnerships is what makes their model scalable. One partner is a company that buys PPE for large hospitals and another takes care of warehousing and third-party logistics, allowing PPE Access to shift to more of an administrative function.
“These strategic partnerships, in addition to our network of manufacturers and distributors around the world, will help fill some of these existing gaps in the system.”
Now that they’ve launched, they’re starting to lay the groundwork so they can begin to scale up and help more providers in need.
Into the unknown
“Access is not just a regional problem,” she says, “this is happening everywhere. We're looking at expanding into Ontario West first, then looking at how we can make this available to all kinds of providers across Ontario.”
French says one of their biggest challenges is the lack of provincial data on community needs.
“It’s completely fragmented,” says French. “There is little information on the number of organizations that might participate or the amount of PPE they’ll need on an ongoing basis. Once we can start analyzing and tracking some of this data, and the usage patterns, then we can start planning out our expansion.”
More stories about Joule's COVID-19 Innovation grant recipients:
This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule. Feel passionate about physician-led innovation? Please connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.