The Human Side of Automated Inventory Management Technology

A recent article in Becker’s Hospital Review offers opinions from 51 hospital execs around the country about how technology and automation can solve some of their most pressing issues. The vast majority spoke about how technology helps in two primary areas: (1) patient care and management, e.g., remote monitoring, telemedicine, online registration, and appointment scheduling; and (2) revenue cycle management, e.g., billing, coding, copay collection, and claims processing.

They also spoke about how essential technology is for preventing staff burnout and dissatisfaction by, for example, freeing up staff to focus on patients rather than on menial, low-value tasks, such as those described in #1 and 2 above. Labor shortage in hospitals is an urgent problem right now – the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic – and hospitals are looking for ways to attract and retain their talent. 

It was quite surprising that basically none of these hospital leaders spoke about how technology can help with their inventory management and supply chain issues. These concerns should be at the forefront of their minds. Medical supplies and devices aren’t sexy, but they represent the second largest budget item after labor costs, and their management is extremely responsive to tech solutions – supplies are a kind of low-hanging fruit for hospitals that are looking for ways to save money, support staff, and improve patient care. 

Technologies focused on improving inventory management and supply chain achieve a multitude of important things. For one, they boost hospitals’ bottom line by reducing waste, supply spend and shrinkage, they increase charge capture, and they mitigate risk due to billing errors. 

Plus, the supply chain impacts each and every patient encounter, so both patients and caregivers benefit from implementing supply chain solutions. They protect patients by ensuring that recalled items are instantly traceable to them, that expired products aren’t placed in them, and that products are always available for a given procedure. 

And automated inventory management technology plays a key role in improving providers’ mental health and well-being because it eliminates repetitive, low skill, or administrative tasks related to tracking recalled devices to patients, documenting clinical usage at the point-of-care, fixing mistakes or omissions in patient records, updating product labels on shelves, and hunting around for products and supplies, to mention just a few. 

Without these technologies, staff are forced to use cumbersome, time-consuming, manual, and error-prone systems that cause anxiety and burnout and distract them from focusing on patients. Conversely, when automation helps providers feel less stressed out and exhausted, there is less turnover and better retention. 

Reliable and accurate data is at the heart of these technologies. The adoption of solutions like RAIN RFID or barcode scanning that automatically capture UDI data is essential for the consistent identification and accurate tracking of all devices and supplies throughout their life cycle, from point of manufacturing to point of care.  

This data is needed for both day-to-day inventory operations, such as reordering, product availability, expiration tracking, and recall management, as well as more strategic decision-making, such as forecasting supply needs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic panic may be over, but the lessons learned by healthcare organizations about the need for full visibility into and control over one’s clinical inventory and supply chain processes will stay with us and are now the new norm. The main challenge facing hospitals today is how to develop the range of competencies needed to fully optimize these processes through the application of automated data-driven technology solutions.