by Ryan Beaver, MBA, MHA, LSSGB
Consulting Director, Supply Chain Operations

You arrive at 6 a.m., lunch in hand and the hospital is humming quietly. You open the door to your windowless basement office, turn on the lights and power up your computer. As the monitor’s glow transitions to your inbox, you’re reminded of the stack of cost savings and process improvement ideas that you have on the burner. 

On the bottom of your stack lies an analysis that you put together for the CFO months ago. It’s a six- to seven-figure savings opportunity. It’s your white whale! It’s at the bottom because the hospital has had brand loyalty for a decade, your clinical contact uses these products and the vendor representative might as well have an employee name badge. Keeping that in mind, the alternative doesn’t simply offer cost savings – which tends to fall on deaf ears regarding clinical staff – it also offers innovative technology and may actually improve patient outcomes. The issue is this pitch is coming from someone who isn’t clinical and no matter how wonderful this friendship is that you’ve developed, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

It’s at this point that a lot of us fail or bail. It’s at this point where you need to go back to the basics. Instead of failing or bailing, consider focusing on these steps the next time a cost savings or process improvement opportunity comes across your desk:

  • Work to cultivate clinical relationships. Put in the early hours and the late nights to show your clinical partner you care about the initiative.
  • Start early, have visibility and know your data. Study your information and prepare the conversation before ever engaging.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk with the clinicians, their staff and their peers.
  • Celebrate small steps in the process. This doesn’t need to be a ticker tape parade; just embrace the times where you get someone else to start seeing your side.
  • You’re working together as a team, don’t leave your partner adrift in a meeting. Clinicians think differently than supply chain people. When questions come up about things that aren’t clinical, be ready to jump in.
  • You can’t win them all … know when to cut bait and move on. Not all cost savings initiatives are well received. Know when to move on and when to dig in.

Cultivating a clinical-to-supply relationship

Clinical partnerships with the supply chain are difficult. Physicians and nurses play a vital role in any health care organization, but their primary focus is on the patient. Supply chain cost savings initiatives are rarely part of their to-do list. The question remains, how do you get them interested in making time to work together on the array of cost savings opportunities in the supply chain? Start with a WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) approach. You need to be able to operate in their space, show them value and deliver on your promises. Most of all, you need to help them continue to protect their patients.

Building relationships with clinical staff is a lot like building personal relationships. You start by finding mutual interests, engaging them on a personal level and nurturing trust. Now how do you do that with an orthopedic surgeon who has relationships with vendor representatives as well as the C-suite, and who also is performing total knee replacement surgery on five different patients today?

No one said that building a relationship would be easy or quick. Starting a relationship with a physician requires you to put in the time on their schedule. Here are a couple of quick tips to get the relationship off the ground:

  • Meet and get to know their physician assistant(s)
  • Understand their brand loyalty and vendor relationships
  • Learn how many clinicians this will affect and work to get allegiance
  • Engage with them inside their space, e.g. office hours, operating schedule, etc.
  • Know the political landscape of the organization

We’re friends … now what?

Now that you and the clinician are on a first-name basis, it’s time to start working together. Physicians and nurses are highly dedicated to their materials and processes. Most either started using these products in medical school or trained with them during residency. If you’re using a certain hockey stick and score a hat trick in the championship, chances are you’re brand loyal for life. The key to this part of the process is to root through the stack on your desk and find contracts or cost savings that are mutually beneficial … the low-hanging fruit. You can work with the physician or nursing leader and start to gradually bring them into the interesting world of supply chain! Once the cost savings initiative or process improvement is pitched, rely on their clinical expertise to help guide the project. This is the chance to solidify the relationship and allow you to get a collective win under your belt. The more complex negotiations will come later in the process.

It’s not about winning, it’s about patient safety

Remember, cost savings and process improvement should never sacrifice clinical or supply chain reputation, but above all else, should not have a negative effect on patient safety. There’s an old adage, “Don’t buy cheap tools.” In other words, if you buy cheap tools, you’ll end up buying them over and over. In health care, if you buy cheap tools, there’s a lot more at stake than your bottom line. Clinical relationships in supply chain can make some of the hardest projects beneficial, organizationally altering, and dare I say, fun!  Build them, nurture them and allow them to continue to grow. They are a clear path to supply chain’s continued evolution and to reducing health care costs for our patients.

Interested in learning more about engaging clinicians in cost savings and process improvement? Vizient can help you chart a course to a clinically integrated supply chain today.

About the author. In his role as consulting director on the supply chain operations advisory team at Vizient, Ryan Beaver uses his more than 15 years of health care industry experience to provide process improvement and material expense reduction opportunities to Vizient member health care organizations. His areas of focus include project management, acquisition management and cost reduction in the supply chain arena. In addition to providing the tools, Beaver utilizes Lean and Six Sigma techniques to assist members in understanding the methods and processes required to achieve measurable results. His expertise in cost savings initiatives, contract management, inventory administration and labor allocation helps guide organizations to reach their full cost containment potential.

Published: April 11, 2019