How automating the supply chain can alleviate staff frustration, help health systems prepare for the future: 5 Qs with Cardinal Health's Lisa Zierten

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Even though hospital and health system supply chains are achieving greater clinical integration than in the past, there is room for improvement, a recent Cardinal Health survey found. Healthcare providers continue to express frustration with antiquated systems, which can lead to decreased quality of patient care and widespread waste.

According to Lisa Zierten, director of marketing for distribution at Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health, automation of manual supply chain processes is key to mitigating clinician frustration and improving data collection and processes.

She recently sat down with Becker’s Hospital Review to discuss the issues that may be leading to staff frustration, tips to alleviate clinician frustration and how to determine if automation is the right solution.

Editor's Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: How can supply chain issues affect the quality of patient care?

Lisa Zierten: Supply chain shortcomings can affect the patient in a multitude of ways, some of which may not be evident with a cursory glance. In a recent Cardinal Health survey of more than 300 healthcare providers, 57 percent reported having to delay a patient case because they didn't have the right supplies on hand and 36 percent had to cancel a patient case entirely.[1] A healthy supply chain should ensure that no patient is denied  care because of an expired product or a stocking issue.

That said, it's unsurprising that 67 percent of respondents reported that supply chain issues led to frustration among clinical staff.[1] When staff members are busy and attempting to track product usage manually, accuracy problems are inevitable. Furthermore, when asked about the ideal amount of time they'd like to spend on supply chain tasks in a typical workweek, frontline staff reported actual time spent to be more than double their ideal duration. [1] This is time that could be spent caring for patients.

Q: How can health systems alleviate clinician frustration?

LZ: Automation is key. Nearly half of our survey respondents, 49 percent, said that manual supply chain tasks negatively affect their productivity, but only 17 percent work in an organization that utilizes radio-frequency identification-enabled cabinetry, mobile and point-of-use solutions. [1] Manual supply tracking is frustrating for clinicians and leads to data accuracy problems, but many health systems have yet to take the leap and adopt an automated inventory system. It's a great opportunity to streamline the supply chain.

Automation is also a great way to address cost concerns. In our survey, 81 percent of procedural department managers reported that their organizations had problems overutilizing or wasting supplies.[1] A health system can reduce this unnecessary waste by first ensuring that usage data is accurate and comprehensive, which an automated inventory system utilizing RFID can help with. Once the data is accessible, it can be leveraged to optimize the organization's supply chain.

Additionally, the survey found that more than a third of respondents, 36 percent, reported that a significant problem within their organization is clinicians hoarding supplies. [1] If clinicians are forced to hoard products, it's an indication that the necessary products are not available, and it's a sign that the supply chain is not functioning in a healthy way. Optimization via automation can alleviate this concern as well. 

Q: How can supply chain leaders ensure staff members are bringing up issues and frustrations?

LZ: It's important to consider that staff may not be expressing concerns directly to leadership. Our survey found that 63 percent of procedural department management and frontline staff shied away from getting involved in supply chain discussions and decisions because it is time consuming and takes away from patient care.[1] This means there may be avoidable issues in the supply chain because employees' concerns remain unraised. My suggestion to improve clinician input and ease frustration is to actively seek out feedback in an efficient and accessible format. Only 6 percent of frontline staff feel confident enough to handle supply chain tasks well, so this is a major opportunity for cross-departmental communication and innovation.[1]

Q: What challenges are supply chain leaders facing as the demand for affordable, quality care increases?

LZ:  Supply chain costs are more easily controlled than highly variable costs like labor, so optimization of supply chain spending is going to be included in integrated delivery network initiatives over the next few years. Ideally, a well-functioning supply chain will minimize not only waste, but also clinician frustration and labor costs associated with potential staff turnaround. But even a system that is considered "good enough" now may not cut it in the long run as costs continue to rise.

In addition, the industry shift to a more transactional model centered around value-based care is changing patient expectations. Patients want their care to be convenient and affordable with transparency at every step of the process. When supply chain tasks that could easily be automated are pulling clinicians away from their patients, it can sabotage the success of a facility by negatively affecting patient experience.

Q: How can healthcare leaders prepare their supply chains for industry change?

LZ: To improve margins, it's vital for health systems to understand where their supply chain currently stands. How long does staff spend chasing down products every day? How often are nurses pulled away from patients to assist in supply chain tasks? How much are expired products costing the facility? Taking the time to quantify waste in the supply chain is the first step toward improvement. Health systems should consider both soft costs like labor hours lost and hard costs like expired product and missing inventory.

Once a healthcare organization understands the costs of its current system,  it can weigh various options and explore whether automation is the right solution. Automation seems to be gaining popularity in the industry. Last year, 15 percent of survey respondents reported that their facilities had automated RFID systems. [2] This year, that number has increased to 17 percent, while an additional 19 percent have RFID implementation in progress.[1] For those who are unsure whether RFID implementation would benefit their facility, a small-scale pilot program is a great way to garner initial feedback. This can be as simple as introducing one smart cabinet to a single department.

The supply chain is a living thing. It's constantly changing and evolving, and access to real-time data is key in anticipating the shifts health systems will experience. The more data on hand, the more well-armed a health system can be in the battle to provide peak patient care at the lowest possible cost.

To learn more about Cardinal Health’s supply chain solutions, click here.

[1] About Cardinal Health Supply Chain Survey

This study was fielded January 16-28, 2019, using an online survey methodology. The samples were drawn from SERMO's Online Respondent Panel of Health Care Providers, which includes over 600,000 medical professionals in the United States. The study included 306 respondents total from health care organizations varying in size, specialty and practice area. Respondents included frontline clinicians (n=81), supply chain decision-makers (n=75), hospital/supply chain administrators (n=75) and department managers (n=75).

All survey data on file at Cardinal Health

[2] Survey Finds 40 Percent of Health Care Providers Have Canceled Surgical Cases Due to Lack of Supplies. Cardinal Health, March 2018.

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