When we think about innovation in health care, the clinician-patient relationship usually comes to mind. It’s where clinical advancements, resulting in improvements in patient quality of life, occur. But broadscale adoption of clinical improvements — the way we can make patient interactions widely successful — requires getting the right products, services and capabilities into the hands of clinicians. The supply chain is essential in driving scalable, sustainable improvements in the health care system.

A strong supply chain is a strategic asset for a clinical leader seeking to adopt medical best practices and technologies. A strong partnership between clinical and supply chain leaders allows a health system to source and distribute preferred items and services as well as discourage obsolete products.

Such a partnership also allows a health system to mitigate drug shortages and, more broadly, manage the growth of drug costs. Marrying active formulary management with back-end supply analytics can uncover undesirable pharmaceutical use, leading to reductions in clinical variation, a stronger negotiating position with suppliers and better patient outcomes.

Two examples

Innovations in the supply chain can also yield substantial clinical improvements. For example, supply chain innovation can help ameliorate a nursing shortage. It’s common to see a nurse searching multiple locations for something needed to treat a patient, whether it’s a hernia mesh in a specific size or a particular dose of medicine. Searching for supplies is time-consuming and can be a symptom of breakdowns in the collaboration between clinicians and supply chain professionals.

By increasing the number of PAR locations in the hospital, adopting a lean inventory system such as kanban and using technology to track equipment location, better supply chain management can free up capacity and reduce the number of nurses needed to provide care to patients, minimizing the impact a short staff might have on a system.

Another example of how the supply chain can affect clinical outcomes is in readmissions. Nearly 30 percent of prescriptions written at discharge are never filled. Could this be a factor in the high rate of readmissions, particularly among the medically fragile population? Supply chain innovation could make filling of those prescriptions (and perhaps the delivery of them to the patient’s home) easier.

Taking the concept further, a strong relationship with care coordinators can determine if there are other deliveries that should be made to the patient’s home. Any given patient might benefit from electronic devices, durable medical equipment or even food. Supply chain managers are best positioned to coordinate the delivery of those products to the patient — and to do so in the most effective manner.

Key steps

Innovating the supply chain can be difficult — but it doesn’t need to be. To get started, consider the following:

1. Understand the customer. The supply chain has many customers, both within the facility and outside it. Having a crisp understanding of customers’ needs, goals and interests is crucial to avoid trying to please too many constituents at the same time. Focus on a subsegment of your customer base and on understanding that segment’s specific needs.

To understand the needs of the system’s orthopedic surgeons, for example, spend time with them in the office, in the clinic and in the operating room. Who do they talk to? What do they like about the job, and what do they find frustrating? Seek to build an appreciation of not just what their supply chain needs are but also why they have those needs.

If the focus is on patient discharges, visit the homes of a few recently discharged patients and see what those environments look like to better understand whether a new approach to serving them would be effective. Without a thorough understanding of the customer, it will be difficult to initiate lasting change in the supply chain.

2. Create multiple potential solutions. After gaining a thorough understanding of customers’ needs, brainstorm multiple solutions that might meet those needs. Considering several potential solutions allows for two key developments: First, it facilitates an iterative approach to solution development more effectively than focusing on only one concept. Second, it prevents the team from becoming married to an idea before it undergoes thorough scrutiny.

3. Test and revise. It is said that you’ll never know less about the answer to a problem than at the beginning of a project. Therefore, an iterative approach to developing a solution is generally more successful than selecting the first concept identified. Investigating and adjusting aspects of a concept before investing reduces the cost of development and increases the likelihood of success.

Test the riskier parts of a plan by using prototypes and pilots and by actively soliciting customers’ feedback. Most customers are good at articulating shortcomings of a potential solution, providing valuable input. Feedback at this stage might even halt a project that has a fatal flaw — a substantial win in innovation.

A concept is ready to be launched when customer feedback is strongly positive. This might be after one iteration or after 10, depending on the complexity of the need being addressed.

Providing results

Viewing the supply chain as a strategic asset in health care innovation has far-reaching effects. Involving the supply chain early in clinical improvements can expedite the adoption of meaningful medical advancements for better patient care. Focusing on how the supply chain can drive clinical improvements furthers advances in patient outcomes that might otherwise be difficult to achieve.

By establishing the supply chain’s role in the health system’s best-practice efforts, evaluating the needs of physicians and patients and employing an iteration process, it’s possible to discover what works best and drive better clinical outcomes for those who come to us for care.

Scott Alexander is the vice president of sourcing, innovation and marketing for ROi in St. Louis.