Recently, I had the experience of sitting with a family member who had undergone surgery in a large academic health sciences centre. The staff and the care were excellent. However, I couldn’t help but notice the nearly relentless quest of staff searching for supplies and equipment. Supply carts were everywhere – lined up in hallways, with rows and rows of plastic bins full of supplies and devices. Staff worked their way through each bin looking for items, often asking their colleagues, “Have you seen any catheters?” or, “Do you have a portable pump? I can’t find one on our unit.” The constant hunt for supplies and equipment on clinical units is the challenge of supply-chain management in health care – the process that ensures supplies and equipment are available when needed for patient care.
Supply chain management is a complex process that includes everything from procuring supplies from distributors or manufacturers at the best price, to managing and tracing the shipments as they reach health care organizations, and then distributing the supplies to clinical units for patient care procedures.
Supply chain management remains a challenge for health systems. Progress in the procurement of supplies, drugs, devices, and equipment has been achieved with the development of Group Purchasing Organizations, which use purchasing power to negotiate the lowest price on supplies for groups of health organizations. However, the dominant focus on price favours large multinational companies that can tolerate narrow margins, and therefore limits access of health systems to innovative new companies with cutting edge technologies who cannot compete on price.
Strategies such as barcoding are used to track distribution of supplies for safety and standardization across organizations. Although there has been progress, many organizations continue to rely on tracking supplies by hand, which too often result in shortages that can compromise quality of patient care. The supply chain process that ensures supplies, drugs, and devices get from the loading dock into the hands of the health provider relies on staff to find what they need on supply carts in order to care for their patients. Imagine the automotive assembly plant relying on workers to run back and forth to supply carts to find each hinge, bolt or wiper blade in order to assemble and manufacture a vehicle.
Retail stores, the automotive industry, even the travel industry have fully implemented supply chain systems that are very impressive. So, why hasn’t the health care sector reaped similar rewards using supply chain strategies? Supply chain management in health systems needs to focus on creating efficient environments for health providers to deliver excellent patient care. Cost savings and quality can be strengthened just by redirecting health professionals’ time from looking for supplies to managing patient care. Furthermore, enabling traceability and tracking can reduce errors and adverse events, which also reduces costs.
As I sat in that hospital room and looked out at the numerous supply carts, I wondered, how would Walmart organize this surgical unit if they were in charge?