How one analyst uses her background in ceramic engineering in measuring value for the hospital supply chain.
Mary Kerr can tell you about porosity in sintered solids. She’s a big fan of the space program, especially the materials used to insulate spacecraft from the cold of outer space and the heat of re-entry. She knows a thing or two about heavy-duty diesel engines and glass compositions used in electronics. And don’t get her started on relational databases.
Kerr also knows a lot about healthcare supply chain management. She is senior analyst, custom analytics for Amerinet’s Diagnostix Group. Her journey from ceramics engineering to healthcare value analysis may sound like an improbable one. But, in retrospect, the skills she learned prior to joining Amerinet two years ago – particularly the ability to study the properties of various materials, analyze lots of data, and work with others to help them understand the implications of that data – are just what hospital executives are looking for in value analysis professionals.
Kerr has always been interested in math and science, especially chemistry. Ceramic engineering – the science and technology of creating objects from inorganic, non-metallic materials – seemed to be the best way to apply those skills and interests. “I was fascinated with the materials used for thermal protection in the space program, such as the extremely pure silica shuttle tiles and silicon nitride nose cones.”
Kerr graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Illinois, then got a master’s degree from New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. “It was a unique situation,” she says of Alfred. “The campus was full of ceramic engineers and ceramic artists.”
By way of background, Kerr explains that materials are classified as organic, metallic or ceramic. Ceramic raw materials are plentiful, such as clay and sand. “Advanced processing and testing methods allow us to use them for traditional and high-tech applications,” she explains.
That’s because ceramics are high-temperature, insulating and wear-resistant, and they have high compressive strength, meaning they can withstand pressure that would cause other materials to crumble. Traditional ceramics are tile, brick, concrete, cement, glass, cookware and porcelain. Advanced ceramic materials are used in optics, electronics, machining and cutting tools, engine components and orthopedic implants.
While studying for her master’s degree, Kerr completed an internship at IBM in East Fishkill, N.Y., preparing, characterizing, and testing glass compositions used in alumina substrates for silicon chips found in computers. After graduation, she got a job with Detroit Diesel, maker of engines for over-the-highway trucks. Her job was testing ceramic materials in the big engines.
It was her next job experience that brought Kerr into the medical industry. Working on a contract basis for Mallinckrodt Medical in St. Louis, she was responsible for synthesizing and testing imaging agents. It was to be a turning point for her. “While working with test results at Mallinckrodt, I became interested in the data [processing] and IT side of industry,” she says. When the Mallinckrodt engagement ended, she found a position in database management with Ultradata Systems, a consumer electronics manufacturer.
“Moving over to database management, it helped to have a good technical background,” she says. “I had had some programming experience and was able to get into what was then state-of-the-art database programming.” Five years later, she took a position with the St. Louis Art Museum, using her database management skills to conduct research on potential donors.
In 2005, Kerr became aware of a value analysis position at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Ill., the city in which she had spent her high school years. “They had an up and coming value analysis program, and were looking for somebody who was confident on the data side.” Her director was Cindy Christofanelli. (See related article.)
She found the transition to be relatively smooth. “Value analysis is a critical process in engineering as it is in healthcare, and decisions must be supported by accurate data. A solid data management background has been extremely valuable. By understanding basic relational database properties, it is easier to determine appropriate data recording, reporting and presentation.”
The position at Memorial was multifaceted. On the one hand, she spent a fair amount of time organizing data collected from the medical center’s materials management information system. On the development and value analysis side, she did a lot of work with physician preference items. For example, she reviewed orthopedic joint and spinal implant constructs; collected historical data on the OR’s acquisition of such items; and analyzed potential vendors’ market share and costs, as well as utilization by individual surgeon. “We tied that back to the financials of the encounter,” she says. All of this information was given to the decision-makers in hopes of achieving consensus about product acquisition, and, ultimately, lowering costs.
“We were fortunate that we had a very engaged physician committee, who actually enjoyed seeing the results posted,” she says.
Four years after joining Memorial, she became aware of the position with Amerinet’s Diagnostix Group. “Our goal is to review spend data and identify the best way our customer can save money,” says Pat Klancer, senior director, supply chain, Diagnostix services. To do so, Diagnostix recruits people with excellent analytical and technical skills. “But we also look for people with some background and knowledge of healthcare products,” she says. Given her work at Covidien and then at Memorial, Kerr was a perfect fit.
“It’s truly enjoyable,” says Kerr, speaking about her position at Amerinet.
“Learning the details of a product category helps me focus on what is important to the decision makers and end users,” she says. “In ceramics, properties are often determined by inherent flaws, such as porosity in a sintered solid. This applies also in healthcare value analysis. Knowing what to watch for, what works and doesn’t work also helps me ask the right questions.
“Similar considerations are necessary in engineering a new product and in analyzing value in a healthcare initiative,” she continues. “Who needs and uses the products or services? What is currently available? What costs and usages are expected? Are comparable products to be considered? How do the results compare locally or nationally? How easy is it to implement change? Are there recalls or other issues? Can we validate the availability through the organization’s distribution channels? What is the impact on the supply chain? What is the return on investment? What are the costs to implement, test, and qualify? Who will make the decision to proceed?”