Healthcare’s Supply Chain is Different, and Therein Lies the Motivation for Change

Have you ever tried to teach the nuances of the healthcare supply chain to someone steeped in the practices of another industry’s supply chain? I have, and I can tell you it is frustrating. I lecture every semester at Michigan State University and the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I often start those lectures with a story about trying to explicate healthcare supply chain’s unique characteristics:

It was an ordinary, meeting-packed day at the corporate offices of the integrated delivery network where I worked. Everyone in the supply chain department was working overtime to better the IDN’s financial position. Then, the wheels came off. I was called into an emergency meeting chaired by an IDN executive with over 15 years of experience in supply chain with … General Motors. In the meeting we were informed that Sulzer, a (since defunct) hip implant supplier, had issued a recall on a range of serial numbers of a specific hip implant model.

New to healthcare, the ex-GM exec called the meeting to initiate the recall process. Where he came from, a vehicle affected by a recall could be traced to an owner, an address and a dealership with an inventory of replacement parts. A notice would be sent to the owner, who would be instructed as to which dealership to take the vehicle to for service.

Healthcare, of course, is different. We don’t manufacture cars; we treat people. We leave parts in the human body, and when there is a recall we use a convoluted, government-imposed, multiparty, primarily paper-based system to track down and get patients scheduled for an explant. To find the recalled product in the hospital or the replacement product, we send staff to the shelves or call the manufacturer.

I share this with the students to set up three themes that I build upon in the lecture:

  • This industry needs help.
  • Supply chain is often associated exclusively with cost savings, but also has a profound responsibility for patient safety.
  • The work is purposeful.

My goal is to motivate those unafraid of a challenge to consider a career in healthcare. Since most of the students will become consultants and analysts when they graduate, I try and help them think beyond the analytical task to the impact of the outcome of their work. How will the analysis be used? By whom? What other observations can be teased out of the data?

I close the lecture with the following quote from C. West Churchman’s 1971 book, The Design of Inquiring Systems: “To conceive of knowledge as a collection of information seems to rob the concept of all of its life. Knowledge resides in the user and not in the collection. It is how the user reacts to a collection of information that matters.”

I believe this quote articulates a premise that we can all benefit from as we work to navigate the changes ahead. The context for healthcare delivery is changing and so must the information and knowledge offered by its supply chain practitioners.

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