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A Tour of Healthcare Supply Chain Innovation in Action

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According to a 2015 survey of hospital executives commissioned by Cardinal Health, services reimbursement followed closely by the increasingly higher costs of supplies are two of the biggest challenges facing these executives. Financial issues, drug shortages and efficiency of the overall organization follow as major concerns.

One can notice a common theme among hospital executives that are often directly related to lack of supply chain efficiencies.

A 2015 white paper, 10 Barriers to Effective Inventory Management, points to the continued need for addressing barriers to effective supply chain and inventory management in hospital settings.  This is especially important in operating room or cardiac catheterization settings where medical devices are expensive and inventory management policies often stem from individual physician or surgeon relationships with individual device manufacturers. Cardinal’s white paper cites one report as indicating that supply chain inefficiency, waste and lack of visibility result in a $5 billion in inefficiencies each year in the implantable device market alone.

In operating room settings, surgeons, scrub technicians, resource nurses or operating room managers assume responsibility for maintaining relationships with manufacturers of implantable devices. They do so to insure access to the latest technology and patient safety innovations as well as surgeon preferences for certain devices. In emergency surgery situations, adequate inventory takes on an all-important life and death dimension, one that must be supported by accurate data related to demand incidence.

These complex relationships often extend to rendering orders and managing inventory. The result can often lead to lack of visibility of existing inventory in terms of expired, obsolete or recalled devices. There are also miscommunications and emotion among clinicians and hospital procurement professionals as to inventory exposure and cost. This is an area that has long been fertile for improvements in inventory management, particularly in advanced methods of item-level tracking.

As a major healthcare products distributor for hospitals and health care providers, Cardinal Health is working with hospitals in availability of more innovative inventory management practices in this area.

In November, this author had the opportunity to visit the Cardinal Health Healthcare Supply Chain Innovation Lab located in Concord Massachusetts.  This is essentially an R&D facility dedicated to reducing waste in the health care supply chain for implantable devices utilizing an Internet of Things (IoT) item-level technology approach. The lab serves as a hub to explore innovative technology approaches such as smart sensors and near-field communications (NFC) in addressing healthcare supply chain product demand and supply inefficiencies.

At the conclusion of the tour and a comprehensive briefing from Jean-Claude Saghbini, Cardinal Vice President and GM for Inventory Management Solutions, this author was impressed.

My impressions stemmed not only from the leveraging of advanced technology to challenging healthcare focused inventory management process needs, but in the notion that healthcare supply chains as a whole, and we as healthcare consumers, can greatly benefit from the application of such technology.

Cardinal’s approach to inventory management is described as product agnostic and can include devices not distributed by Cardinal.  The initial focus on medical, orthopedic and implantable device inventory is obvious, in that this inventory is expensive and as noted above, there has been a long history of process inefficiency. While surgeons strive to be up-to-date with the latest in medical technology, their concerns should not be inventory and supply chain management.  That is the purview of hospital administration.

We observed RFID enabled storage cabinets where inventory is RFID tagged by either suppliers or hospital teams. Storage cabinets constantly monitor item-level inventory including serialized devices.  An operating room nurse or physician removes an item from the cabinet and inventory status is immediately adjusted. Within the OR setting, a nurse scans a bar code affixed to the patient and the inventory transaction is  RFID Smart Cabinets for Hospitals automatically updated to include association with a patient.  If the item withdrawn is not accompanied by a patient scan, an inventory alert is generated.

Cabinets monitor and report inventory balances at prescribed intervals and can automatically generate replenishment orders when inventories drop to prescribed levels. If one particular hospital does not have a particular implantable device on-hand, a quick search of other networked cabinets quickly indicates which nearby or healthcare network hospitals have the specific device. The process works similarly for consignment inventory placed adjacent to operating rooms, helping hospital administration to control premium inventory costs.

Analytics associated with this automated process that are available to hospital administrators include open and completed inventory withdrawals, device consumption patterns to calculate replenishment thresholds, inventory nearing shelf-life expiration, inventory subject to product recall, or data needed to ascertain opportunities for specific device standardization.   RFID tag 250-87

Physicians and care givers can also take advantage of embedded analytics in searching for specific devices implanted in patients by serial number, or in queries related to historic procedures, or proper item stocking levels based on actual consumption data.

The value-proposition of Cardinal’s approach is that technology allows care givers more opportunities to better concentrate on patient care and patient outcomes, removing the administrative burden of inventory management. Hospital administrators and procurement team’s in-turn gain valuable efficiencies and inventory knowledge to help in improving overall efficiencies.

This author remains convinced that healthcare product suppliers, product distributors, hospitals and caregivers must continue to come together to collaboratively address the chronic inefficiencies of today’s healthcare supply chains. The visit to Cardinal’s Healthcare Supply Chain Innovation Lab and the exchange of ideas with staff convinces me that today’s advanced supply chain item-level and IoT focused technology can and will provide significant strides in overcoming such inefficiencies.

As our blog nameplate connotes, supply chains do matter in many industry settings and in healthcare supply chains, the opportunities for increased efficiencies and process innovation are vast.

Bob Ferrari

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