5 ways supply management matters

Keeping track of it all: How a supply management system improves patient care
By Benjamin Harris
01:23 PM

Keeping shelves stocked and enough supplies in their place is one of the most important aspects of managing any hospital department efficiently and safely. Supply management is the pipeline from whence all instruments of care flow, and if it causes more problems than it solves, a department runs a risk of wasting money or, worse, negatively affecting patient care. 

Monica Goetz, clinical nursing manager at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC), says that while supply chain management is often not the first thing that comes to mind in running a critical department, but it plays a crucial part. "It's hard to keep track of stock," she says, noting that there are "some things that aren't as important as others but when you have someone who's seriously ill you want to know something is going to be there when you reach for it."

Goetz talks about five key ways that supply management can improve patient safety.

1. Accurate stock counts. In a busy department, supply levels can fluctuate. When what's supposed to be in inventory isn't there, that "could definitely be a patient safety issue," says Goetz. "If we don't have accurate inventory and we reach for it and it's not there, it's something we can't use." The electronic system Goetz' department utilizes automatically reflects stock levels as items are ordered from the system. Staying on top of supply levels means that when something is running low and a redelivery isn't scheduled in the near future, department managers can arrange for a resupply. Goetz says with the technology her department uses, "when we push that button ... it allows us to communicate with purchasing, allows them to do off-schedule delivery."

2. Reporting. Managing supplies is a battle of par versus usage: par level being the "supposed" amount of use a product gets, versus the actual usage. Analytics can help determine the gap between these two numbers, and it can greatly improve quality of care. A reporting system built in to a supply management system allows Goetz' team to "see how often we go through [certain items] like water. Is there a better product out there that gives us a better cost savings?" The analytics that can be generated go beyond finding product replacements and keeping them in stock, too: It can influence training and how a team works. Goetz says her team can look at usage patterns and see when someone is using resources inefficiently. "We can track back to who the users are, we can look for trends," she says. "We are able to go back and say can you talk to me about this day, and that gives us an educational opportunity."

3. Money saving. This is the one on top of everyone's mind, for sure. "If I have that extra dollar at the end of the year, we can invest that back in to our unit and our patients," says Goetz. She says that by leveraging supply management systems to keep better track and to influence more efficient use of inventory, she can save her department more money. That money can be put back in to the department. "If we're getting cost savings from a supply management perspective, we can turn that back and invest in our patients," she says. Can the analytics that saved that cash actually help determine what would be the best investment? "It kind of does," says Goetz. She says that analytics generated by supply management can allow her to see what supplies a department goes through the most, and allows her to ask "is there something that's newer out there, something that's better?" She says a hospital "can customize what your overall purchases for patient care could be based on what the trends are in supply management."

4. Organization. Keeping things in stock and on hand is a moot point if nobody can find it. Knowing who needs what and being able to pinpoint it is a strong feature of electronic supply management, says Goetz, who says GBMC's inventory is organized by service, meaning that in each general area all of the products are grouped to relate to each other. Orders are submitted through portable devices, which helps speed up the process and reduce errors. "You can search for a product, type what you are looking for and blinking lights under each product ... shows you where it is and make sure you have the right thing," says Goetz. The system is touch screen based as well, which makes it easy to see what the specific needs of each patient is. "All the patients pull up," when someone access the inventory system, she says. All that needs to be done is to "touch the patient [icon in the system] they're looking to charge items to." Having the ability to quickly and accurately identify specific products and track in real time who they are going to is an asset to hospitals in terms of accountability and cost savings, Goetz says.

5. Time. The less time spent in the supply cabinet the better. "Standing next to a supply room or having to call for products – those are things that take you away from the bedside and take you away from the patient," says Goetz. By implementing a smart system to manage supply, departments or whole organizations can begin to slash away at inaccurate retrievals, problematic supply levels, or time wasted in trying to locate an uncommon item. Goetz sees supply management as driving many of the day to day actions in a hospital. When properly implemented, electronic supply management helps keep track of stock, helps departments make smart decisions about what to change in the future, keeps them organized and operating fluidly, and can save them cash. All of these things tie back to the issue of time: She says that the less of it spent doing all of the above means more freedom for nurses to "spend their time doing things that are beneficial to the patient."