After massive disruptions from a variety of sources, including a global pandemic, natural disasters and even blocked shipping canals, the dust is starting to settle in terms of what is likely to be long-term in the orthopedic manufacturer-to-hospital supply chains and what may have been an anomaly. We spoke with Denise Odenkirk, Vice President of Supplier Sales at Global Healthcare Exchange (GHX), a healthcare trading partner network that connects those who buy, sell and use products needed to deliver patient care. She gave a clearer idea of what best practices are to come.
Three trends rose to the top as likely long-haulers: cloud-based data exchange, sharing of clinical data and operational excellence.
Long-Haul Supply Chain Trends
Cloud-Based Data Exchange
Orthopedic device companies typically focus heavily on clinical excellence, and rightfully so. But, as hospitals begin moving toward cloud-based Maintenance Management Information Systems (MMIS), there is an emerging need for a shift toward prioritizing operational excellence.
Healthcare providers on cloud-based systems have greater, more streamlined access to product data and images. With the technology available to provide better information to hospitals, there’s an expectation for medical device companies to keep up.
“As a manufacturer, if you’re not sending your hospitals all of these additional attributes and all your image data, you’re being left in the dust,” Odenkirk said. “It isn’t a nice-to-have. It is an expectation.”
Cloud-based MMIS began ramping up at the same time as COVID-19 hit, emphasizing the need for remote information exchange. Traditional systems have become antiquated and could not support the additional data elements and analysis.
“Healthcare needs to get used to this,” Odenkirk said. “We’re now going to have our providers on platforms that are really flexible and their expectations of their manufacturers are going to increase as a result.”
Sharing Clinical Data
Hand-in-hand with the move to cloud-based systems, the healthcare industry is increasingly embracing remote data sharing. COVID-19 has expedited this trend as people were unable to meet in person as they had in the past.
“Manufacturers are having to find new ways to share their clinical data,” Odenkirk said. “I really think it’s going to be interesting to see who becomes excellent at sharing clinical data remotely, whether it’s in the four walls of the operating room or pre- or post-case training or collaborating on new technologies. Who really does that well are going to be the leaders in the future.”
Remote data-sharing is still in its infancy in orthopedics, but is poised to take off. The technology exists in other industries; now, it is being brought into healthcare in a way that it hadn’t been used before. Along with that, sharing aggregate data of use cases, clinical data and outcomes can propel the industry forward even more by improving patient outcomes.
“Product innovation is going to take us to a completely different level of care and level of patient outcomes,” Odenkirk said. “And behind this momentum is having access to clinical data, being able to really understand what protocol, what process will provide the best outcomes across the industry. Better data sharing and use must accompany product innovation and this will just become the new normal in healthcare.”
The pharmaceutical industry already shares data on a large scale, which can serve as a model for the medical device industry. Specific to orthopedics, this can significantly improve patient outcomes, and therefore, will likely be a consumer demand in coming years.
Operational Excellence in Remote Training
Minimally invasive surgery and enabling technology continue to gain traction, which means surgeries will look different in the future. Orthopedic companies should ask themselves, how are you training your customers to get the best outcome possible with your product?
With the abundance of innovation and new products coming to market, the need for extensive training for surgeons is inevitable. Some orthopedic companies have adopted virtual reality to train surgeons on new technology and techniques. Device companies who focus on making the process thorough and painless will do best.
“Whether it’s related to COVID or the shift to more advanced technologies and greater access to data, what we’re going to see in the years to come is a greater emphasis on operational excellence,” Odenkirk said. “If you put yourself in that mindset, manufacturers need to consider what needs to change today and what new training capabilities must be put in place. That’s going to take time; it’s going to take an enormous amount of effort, and it can’t all be done face-to-face.”
Operational Excellence in M&A
The pace of orthopedic mergers and acquisitions has not slowed down and the process can often be messy. Orthopedic device companies that roll out a smooth M&A process that doesn’t affect their hospital customers negatively will likely come out on top.
“From a provider perspective, when a merger happens, it is usually not seamless,” she said. “In the role that I have, I work with a lot of manufacturers. Those that really focus on making this process seamless for their providers are the ones that are winning with M&A.”
Some manufacturers do it better than others, Odenkirk added. Those who have done well focus on the details. That might mean making sure provider systems are up to date with product information. Or it might mean putting operational excellence at the forefront for the newly acquired entity.
“Some manufacturers have M&A teams and all they do all day long is make sure they get every synergy out of that merger,” she said. “They’re arming their commercial teams with information on how to order a new product from the company that was acquired. They’re not just training them on the clinical elements related to that product.”
Similar to overall operational excellence, this type of attention to detail will become an expectation with M&A.
“There are going to be operational executives who all of a sudden realize, ‘I have to change the status quo. I’ve got to raise the bar,’” Odenkirk said. “And there will be some that won’t. They’re the people who are looking at an email inbox full of issues, and they’re just trying to check off the issues, but they’re not getting to the root cause. Those are going to be the companies that just don’t do as well.”
What Orthopedic Companies Can Do
Focus on Transparency
Right now, we are still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and residual supply chain challenges. Supply chain issues will eventually get back to business as usual, but it’s important to understand that fluctuations in material availability and the persistence of natural and man-made disasters will always be present. Furthermore, the pandemic coupled with other factors has prompted new ways of doing business that will likely continue in perpetuity.
“I do think we’re going to have a ‘new normal’ in healthcare,” Odenkirk said. “It’s never going to go back to the way things were.”
There is more emphasis on transparency and accountability when something does go wrong. Hospitals look for easy access to information around supply chain issues. They want to partner with manufacturers that are clear on what happened and what they’re doing to fix it.
“It’s about being a little bit more forthright, and open, and transparent about where you have available inventory,” Odenkirk said. “A lot of it comes down to sharing information and then educating healthcare professionals on what to do in a particular situation. That includes determining the appropriate protocol for a particular procedure to minimize how much of a product the hospital uses in order to minimize waste.”
Prepare for Future Disasters
In terms of disaster preparedness, determining how much inventory to have on hand and where to keep it will help companies remain agile. Natural disasters have become even more prevalent, and there are novel situations popping up, such as hackers holding fuel hostage and blockages within major shipping routes. The fact is, there will always be some kind of disaster disrupting supply chains.
“We need to have a more risk-based approach towards inventory management,” she said. “In years past, disaster recovery and emergency preparedness had been a focus on paper, but we didn’t put the actual storage and inventory into effect at any scale. You’re going to start to see more regional repositories of inventory created to help ensure that we have the appropriate inventory to handle disasters and to have the necessary backups.”
Understanding part or device substitutions in the event of unavailable inventory can also go a long way. Manufacturers can further increase their operational excellence by educating providers on a Plan B.
“You have to look at the whole: What is required for a particular situation? If you don’t have the products, what products would you substitute?” Odenkirk said. “We need to get creative if we’re to save patients’ lives. If you’re a manufacturer, wouldn’t it be smart to give your healthcare professionals a Plan B playbook, so that they know what to do in a crisis?”
Deepen Hospital Relationships
There’s often a tendency to be reflective after a disaster or supply chain disruption occurs. Taking the time to sit with the heads of supply chain at a hospital to find out how an issue affected them is step one toward building a better process and mitigating future risk.
Talk through what you could have done differently. What were key learnings? What changes can you put into place for the inevitable next disruption? And then, make those changes. This all ties back to operational excellence and being a manufacturer that hospitals want to work with.
“The biggest takeaway for manufacturers is that the operational excellence bar must continue to be raised — it’s as important as clinical excellence,” Odenkirk said. “If you’re in a board meeting or an executive meeting and you’re not talking about operational excellence, you’re missing a huge opportunity. When operational excellence is fully embraced as a critical business imperative that is as important as clinical excellence, then that’s when a manufacturer will truly differentiate themselves.” ¢
Heather Tunstall is an ORTHOWORLD Contributor.