Solutions Providers Share Storeroom/Warehouse Tech Insights

Feb. 20, 2024

Healthcare Purchasing News asked a couple of solutions providers some questions on the current state of storeroom/warehouse technologies. Here’s what they had to say.

What are the current challenges healthcare organizations are facing when it comes to storeroom/warehouse?

Space is at a premium in healthcare organizations, and teams are facing the significant challenge of truly understanding where mobile medical equipment (MME) needs to be, how it’s utilized, and its status. Emerging technologies such Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) address these uncertainties and help maximize the strategic distribution and allocation of MME, which frees up storage areas to better utilize space and save time for staff and patients.

What is RTLS? How can it help?

RTLS is designed to provide current and historical visibility into asset locations by automating the processes of moving equipment in and out of warehouse and storage spaces. RTLS includes uses such as asset management where users can identify and monitor the equipment in any storage location through advanced software and IoT-enabled tags that can streamline processes around who needs what, where, when, and how often. It is imperative for hospitals and IDNs to understand where the location of mobile medical equipment (MME) at every point in time. This also allows cost savings in regard to purchases and rental decisions.

RTLS is an important component in helping to free up storage space within hospitals and healthcare organizations. Throughout a hospital, whether in the ED, the PACU, or on critical care floors, leveraging smaller storeroom locations or clean equipment rooms instead of utilizing one large communal location can ensure organizations are not over capitalizing on central storage. RTLS informs on the current location of assets, but more importantly, shares insights on where it should be located to better leverage space. These location insights create actionable context and meaning. This is how we work to educate decision-makers on how to find medical equipment and where to store it to produce the best ROI.

What does the future of this space look like?

The future of RTLS and storeroom/warehousing needs to focus on continuous process improvement. It’s all about leveraging lean methodology to constantly do more with less.

We’re also moving in the direction of using AI responsibly with RTLS, leveraging it to be more predictive about what items are available, where items need to be and when. If you implement RTLS and know exactly where an IV pump is when you need it, your team saves time on non-value-added tasks and storage space. This real-time technology can accomplish so much when utilized to its full extent.

-- Todd Stewart, VP, Solution Sales, CenTrak

Why are there dedicated supply cores to each procedure area in a hospital?

Storerooms and warehouses in healthcare facilities serve to ensure that hospitals always have the medical devices they need for procedures and patient care. Having the right supplies at hand can mean the difference between life or death for a patient, so stocking ample supplies is critical to the quality of care provided. At the same time, overstocking or stocking the wrong products is a major challenge for U.S. healthcare facilities – financially and in terms of risk management. Supply chain professionals are trained to handle inventory efficiently to reduce the risk of stockouts while reducing the amount of over-stocked products. This ensures that procedural areas have the necessary supplies when needed, minimizing disruptions.

Do all hospitals have OR supply cores?

All hospitals have centralized store locations as well as “local” storage locations like OR rooms or specialty carts. Supplies can float between these locations, but it remains a challenge for most hospitals to keep track of “what is where” and minimize overstock and remove expired products from storage locations, for example.

What are the current challenges healthcare organizations are facing when it comes to managing inventory in an OR supply core and operating room non-stock locations?

The key challenges in managing inventory are stagnant PAR locations, returns from unused products from the OR, and outdated expiration date (and product recall) checks: Hospitals spend millions of dollars every year storing products they no longer use and ordering products in excess of their needs. This happens in spite of the fact that lots of hospitals have very advanced inventory management systems that supposedly track their inventory.

The root of the problem can always be traced back to manual processes. Ultimately – inventory management system or not – hospitals rely on staff to conduct manual counts, select products, and make decisions about what and how much is needed. It all comes down to resources, particularly people’s time. Proper inventory management is often dependent on knowledge of the right product, for the right procedure, for the right physician, and this increases dependency on people and manual labor. 

People will never be removed from this equation, but there are manual parts of this process that can be replaced or enhanced with easily accessible technology, and this is where hospitals today have an opportunity to reduce supply costs significantly, while also reducing risk and maintaining inventories adequate for their patient care operations.

According to Medline and Cardinal data, 8-10% of inventory expires annually. Hospitals have to deploy significant resources to look for outdated inventory, as JCHAO requires an expired inventory process to be documented and proven. This is a manual process. Think about that: There are more than 30,000 items in an OR procedure area in an average 500-bed hospital. Using a manual process for this inventory check adds up to a lot of time and resources that could otherwise be deployed caring for patients. 

Are there any new technology innovations that are assisting in these challenges?

Many hospitals are using advanced inventory management software to streamline and automate the inventory management process. These are expensive, complex systems for tracking devices and instruments in a digital system that has to be integrated with other hospital IT systems. Theoretically, with an inventory management system, the hospital knows what’s on its shelves in the supply rooms. However, the information is incomplete and doesn’t include important information like expiration dates and lot numbers.

Hospitals need to employ technologies that can help them truly understand the supplies they have on hand, where they are, and whether they’re still safe to use on patients. This is the difference between inventory management and inventory control. One such solution comes in the form of unique device identifier (UDI) scanning. Since 2017, all manufacturers have been required to use standardized barcodes, or UDIs, which contain information about expiration dates, lot numbers, and more. With the right scanning technology, capturing this additional data can be done in both PAR and non-PAR locations.

Hospitals understandably want to integrate all of their technologies, but that process is slowing them down right now. There needs to be shared knowledge between systems. However, solving a problem with an easy-to-use technology that is department-specific and solves department-specific problems needs to be considered as part of the road map for a long-term strategy.

What does the future of this space look like?

An integrated system that leverages UDI as the source of truth will solve the everyday supply chain problem.

Integrating the GTIN into the master data file has to be a priority for all health systems. A good analogy can be found in the retail industry. The way hospitals are operating today is like the days of the local grocery store owner using a price tag gun. That was the reality 20 years ago, and look at how transacting in retail has changed! Retailers have been able to aggregate and organize their data to make it actionable by putting mobile technology in the hands of their people and leveraging a non-integrated model.

If billion-dollar retail stores can trust mobile app technology, why can’t hospitals? Standard worries about HIPPA don’t apply when it comes to using mobile scanning technology to manage and control inventory at a more granular level. In these cases, we are dealing with product data versus personal data, and systems that scan UDI can eliminate the manual processes currently plaguing hospital inventory management.

Any final thoughts?

If manufacturers would include an RFID tag on all of their products that included the info that they submitted to the FDA for the UDI, it would revolutionize how hospitals use supply data in supply chain, finance and clinical outcomes.

--Ashlea Souffrou, Founder and President of SxanPro