Over the past 30 years, I’ve been on the front lines of healthcare as sweeping changes have continually reshaped the landscape. Today, new technology and insights are advancing the science of healthcare and revolutionizing how hospitals deliver care. The biggest challenges still lie ahead, but we’re better equipped than ever to address what the future holds.
I began my career immersed in the challenges clinicians and administrators face every day. In my time at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary and Tufts Medical Center, I worked as a hospital administrator to ensure we provided excellent patient care, while struggling to manage margin goals with limited data and visibility. In the wake of dramatic reimbursement changes in the 1990s, we had to cut costs hospital-wide. While full-time employee (FTE) reductions did occur, we preferred to look for opportunities to improve supply chain efficiency and reduce inventory expenses. However, with each department using their own manual processes to track products, we were left with anecdotes and best guesses. We knew there were significant untapped savings opportunities, but we couldn’t take maximum advantage of them.
The late 1990s brought a wave of innovative new medical devices that called for major operational adjustments. For example, when the FDA approved the first drug eluting stent, we were eager to get this new, expensive device to patients. We knew it would help keep patients out of the OR and bring more revenue and costs to the cardiac cath lab, but we had limited data and tools to predict what it meant to our total cost of delivered care.
Day to day, the real costs of these limitations started hitting home and I was eager to find a better way to serve our patients.
In 2004, I found the answer—or the promise of an answer—in my first conversations with the two founders of an early stage inventory technology startup that would become part of Cardinal Health in 2013. The founders had a revolutionary vision to replace laborious and imprecise hand-counting and manual tracking of medical products with hands-free, automated inventory systems. RFID-enabled smart cabinets would free up clinicians to focus on patients. The data would be hosted securely in the cloud, visible to hospitals and medical device suppliers alike. Administrators would have the granular data, in one system, they needed to understand and manage true supply chain costs. So, I took a chance, stepped away from my career path of a hospital VP, joined the start-up as their fourth employee, and got to work.
Over the years, it’s been incredibly satisfying to see customers leveraging this new technology to solve these persistent problems. At our first implementation, the cath lab administrator looked at me after seeing the first fully automated read of the smart cabinet and said, with wonder in his eyes, “It’s magic!” When over-worked inventory managers start seeing automated alerts for expiring and recalled items, you can actually see the anxiety lift off their shoulders, knowing technology can now help them protect patient safety. I’ve seen nurses scan a single cardiac balloon box twice to indicate they were using two in an operation, as they would with their existing barcode systems, before making the happy realization that each box had its own unique identifier. With itemized RFID tracking, they can capture specific device data and don’t have to worry about double scanning anymore. (“Did I document that one? Not sure? Just wave it again!”). Small gains add up.
There are so many wins (big and small!) automated technology for inventory tracking can now bring to hospitals and health systems:
Here’s what I know for sure: Automated inventory solutions provide peace of mind. Nurses and other clinical specialists know they can track and locate every device they need, without relying on manual processes and time-consuming searches, or worse, worry that they will run out of what they need or use an expired product by mistake. Physicians can see complete device data for every case. Supply chain administrators know exactly how supplies are being used, so they can project needs and eliminate waste. They can all spend more of their time on what matters most: caring for patients.
It’s clear a healthy supply chain is essential to everyone, from nurses and physicians to service line leaders and supply chain administrators. We’re working to help all hospital stakeholders understand how the supply chain affects them, and where there are opportunities for improvements. In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing results from an illuminating in-depth survey investigating the impact of the hospital supply chain today across hospitals. We’ve also introduced an Inventory IQ tool to help hospital supply chain professionals evaluate their inventory management processes. Try it out, to assess how your hospital is doing today.
Reflecting on my own journey and the stories of the many hospital leaders I’ve worked with, I’m amazed by the tremendous breakthroughs we’ve already seen in automation and technology. And truly, we’re only beginning to uncover what’s possible. As more and more hospitals put new solutions in place and gain greater insights, we continually see new opportunities to solve problems and move the industry forward.