PPE Customization: Here to Stay?

With the advent of personalized medicine, industries are learning that they can customize their products and services to each client. The PPE industry is no outlier, and has taken to offering customized PPE at a level of specificity that will be able to serve any industry with any need.

Virtual Reality: The Future of Safety Training

To many people, virtual reality (VR) is nothing more than an entertaining pastime for gamers. Several safety-related industries, however, are using VR as a practical tool that provides training for its employees.

It may seem futuristic or impractical, but does VR training actually work? In the fields of law enforcement and healthcare, specifically, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Law Enforcement

Training in new police recruits comes along with several potential pitfalls. If the training takes place in a safe environment, it tends to feel unrealistic and therefore fails to serve its purpose. Conducting a training session in a realistic environment, however, is often impractical or dangerous.

For example, imagine trying to train law enforcement officers in techniques they should use when closing down a busy highway. Explaining to the officers what steps they should take does not ensure that they will be able to act under pressure with cars speeding by them.

That’s where virtual reality comes in. This technology can deliver the audio and visual stimulation that the officers would typically encounter on a busy highway, while keeping them in the safety of a training room. This immersive experience gives them hands-on practice in dealing with different types of stressful situations.

VR has also been developed to teach officers communication and de-escalation skills, as well as empathy towards the various individuals they may come into contact with. For example, one study of this technique at Stanford had half of the study’s participants watch a video about what it would be like to be homeless; the other half used VR to actually embody someone who was homeless. The study found that VR participants had higher levels of empathy after the training than the comparison group.

Medical Personnel

Along with other new tech solutions, first responders and physicians have begun to turn to virtual reality to alleviate the shortcomings of other types of training. For example, although physicians have practiced their skills on cadavers for years, these trainings are expensive and limit the number of practice runs that each trainee can take. And while web-based trainings have become common for medical professionals, they are not interactive, and therefore they do not teach the skills as well as a true simulation. In contrast to these training techniques, virtual reality is a safe and inexpensive way for medical professionals to gain experience with hands-on skills in three dimensions. 

 For example, VR training can teach trainees how to use ultrasound-guided technology (such as inserting a central line into a vein, a procedure that takes intense hand-eye coordination and experience to do well). Professionals who are conducting the training can connect the VR glasses to their laptops, enabling them to see “through the trainee’s eyes.” This can help them give the trainee appropriate feedback.

 Virtual reality can also help trainees see the anatomy of the human body in a three-dimensional model, enabling them to better understand how the different systems in one area of the body work together. That way they can better understand the pathophysiology that is at play inside of a patient’s body.

Furthermore, first responders like EMTs can use VR technology to practice triaging patients and treating them correctly at the scene.

Donning and Doffing PPE

In addition to its typical medical applications, VR technology can also be helpful in instructing frontline healthcare workers, as well as workers in other industries, to don and doff PPE safely. The donning and doffing process can be complex, and research shows that VR is much more effective in teaching the process than typical training programs.

For example, in one study done at the BC Women’s Hospital, 70% of those in the VR group were able to complete a complex donning and doffing sequence correctly, compared to only 20% of those in the control group.

Not only that, but VR makes these training sessions more engaging and memorable. It also preserves PPE, since it does not use up PPE during trainings. This is especially critical during periods where PPE is difficult to procure, such as during the COVID-19 PPE crisis in the early years of the pandemic.

In general, VR trainings in many different safety-related fields are immersive and interactive, cost-effective and safe. Perhaps most importantly, they create some level of stress in trainees; that means that when those trainees later encounter a stressful situation, they will feel more comfortable making decisions and taking action. While VR has plenty of room for growth, it seems obvious that more and more trainings, especially in safety-related fields, will turn to these types of simulations for safe and effective ways to teach new skills to their employees.

Is Reshoring Enough?

Many believe that reshoring is the best way to fix the supply chain. Others, though, believe that reshoring alone would be insufficient to create the necessary change.  See why in this article. 

The PPE Crisis: Is Reshoring the Answer?

The PPE shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of building a stronger supply chain. But the question arises: How can this be done?

Many believe that the only way to fix the supply chain is by reshoring, or bringing manufacturing back to American shores. Soon after the pandemic began, the number of North American manufacturers who planned to reshore jumped from an already-high 54% to 69%, and a year later the number stood steady at 83%. So what exactly is reshoring, and why do some believe that it’s the key to repairing the supply chain?

The Benefits

A large percentage of American PPE is produced by other countries. The United States is by far the largest importer of PPE across the globe, but they are not the largest exporter. China is the world leader in exports of medical-grade face masks and eye protection, and several countries in Asia (in which rubber is a natural resource) carry the title of the largest exporters of medical gloves. Even before COVID, reliance on other countries for PPE adversely affected our ability to deal with other public health crises, such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 and the Ebola Virus epidemic in 2014.

If companies would reshore PPE manufacturing, it would mean rebuilding American factories to produce PPE, rather than exporting the PPE from other countries. This would shorten the PPE chain, increasing its resilience in the case of a shortage or other crisis. Not only that, it would increase employment and economic development in areas that traditionally excelled in manufacturing. In fact, due to backward linkages between industries, each job created producing PPE or other nondurable goods would support more than five additional jobs indirectly.

These benefits are even more likely since the current wave of reshoring also emphasizes the importance of sourcing materials near manufacturing facilities, which limits risk. This trend of supply localization, which supplants the sourcing of materials purely based on price, would prevent some of the major issues encountered during the pandemic, primarily that of supply chains that circle the globe and rely on dozens of countries in order to operate.

The benefits go still further. American reliance on other countries, most notably China, poses national security concerns. For example, in 2019 an influential Chinese economist recommended that Beijing decrease its exports of the raw materials to manufacture vitamins and antibiotics, in an effort to assert its dominance over the US. In addition, allowing American products to be manufactured overseas can put American companies at risk of intellectual property theft and substandard production. For example, in 2018 a leading Chinese vaccine manufacturer produced at least 250,000 “substandard” doses of diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough vaccines. And just last year, the FDA issued a warning letter detailing issues with a biomedical patch that were discovered during an inspection of a Chinese manufacturing facility.

Reshoring: Present and Future

Many companies have already started the reshoring process, often with great success. Shawmut, for example, was once a flourishing corporation based in Massachusetts that produced medical equipment for Johnson & Johnson. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when about 90% of American PPE manufacturing moved overseas, Shawmut followed suit. Today, Shawmut has begun the process of reshoring, opening a new facility in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts that will employ around 300 workers and shorten the supply chain for medical equipment in the area significantly.

Similarly, the US Department of Defense awarded a grant to Continuus Pharmaceuticals in 2021, funding the construction of a manufacturing plant in Massachusetts. Civica Rx also received federal funding to build a Virginia-based plant, which will manufacture drugs that would otherwise be imported.

The future of American manufacturing definitely seems to revolve around reshoring, for almost all sectors of PPE. (Gloves are the outlier, since they are more difficult to manufacture—they are part art, part science—and they also are more logical to manufacture in areas that can easily access natural rubber.) As more and more manufacturers successfully reshore their factories, America will find itself in a stronger place, in terms of both national security and the strength of its supply chain

This is the second in a series of three posts about the PPE crisis of 2020. The first post explained the history behind the PPE crisis, and how it developed over the past few decades. The third will discuss other strategies that would be necessary in conjunction with reshoring.