An Evolution with Physician Engagement

Why physicians are valuable partners in operating the supply chain.

April 2023- The Journal of Healthcare Contracting

By LeAnn R. Born, Founder and Advisor with LeAnn R. Born Advisory Solutions

A career in healthcare supply chain allows for working with, learning from, and befriending a wide variety of people who contribute to care delivery in countless ways. Physicians are one of many groups of key stakeholders for the supply chain. Not only are physicians important when making certain product decisions, they are also valuable partners while operating the overall supply chain as a service. 

It has been an interesting journey from how healthcare organization supply chains worked with physicians before COVID-19, how valuable it was to work closely together in the depths of COVID-19 and how those experiences are changing as we come out of the pandemic to enter our new normal. Physician engagement has numerous opportunities and is critical to the success of the healthcare supply chain. 

Working with physicians has always been a rewarding experience for me and it has advanced in various healthy ways. For many years, most time spent with physicians involved engaging them to make selection decisions and contracting strategies for physician preference items. Influenced by COVID-19, physician engagement has evolved to affect different aspects of hospital and health system operations. This new and different engagement has had lasting positive results in these healthcare organizations and, specifically, for the supply chain.

Clarity to physician engagement

Prior to COVID-19, physicians were most involved with decisions related to the products they used. Products used in orthopedics, CathLabs, and general surgery were some of the main areas where physicians were asked to join value analysis teams. Through these teams, criteria about the products and services were established, options were reviewed, and savings was targeted through different sessions with suppliers. Results from this work helped many organizations achieve or exceed their savings performance goals. Standard processes used to make these decisions achieved successful outcomes and defined a certain role clarity for physicians.

Command centers of some sort were created by most healthcare organizations during the first weeks of COVID-19. Most of these command center teams included physicians serving in a variety of roles. By spending time together every day, supply chain teams learned more from physicians about their needs and ideas while physicians learned more about how the supply chain operated the service. Mobile numbers were frequently exchanged for immediate communication needed to make urgent decisions. It might have been about expanding access to respirator masks or changing protocols for pre-procedure testing. As the urgency of these decisions diminished, the comfort with seeking advice through quick texts to the right people improved.  Communication shifted toward general questions and updates like “there is a disruption that is going to limit our access to a product, who should we involve to decide how to manage the situation?” These relationships that were discovered or strengthened during COVID-19 are now contributing to broader involvement by physicians in the mission of supply chain departments. 

COVID-19 experiences brought clarity to the different roles of physician leaders. Informal physician leaders and subject matter experts became more obvious. Many physicians expressed an interest to learn more about the supply chain and how they could be involved. Physicians now reach out with ideas and support for changes that could improve supply chain operations and financial performance.

Conversations worth their time

Throughout my career, I have always found benefit from asking physicians questions. My observation has been that a lot of people, with positive intention, try to protect the time of physicians and make assumptions about what is important to physicians when they use products.  At times, this limits how physicians are engaged. One of the biggest things I’ve learned, is to check with the physicians to see what investment of time they think is required and to always ask what is important to them. 

My favorite example of this was when I sought perspective from a surgeon who many cautioned me to be careful around. I inquired about changing a product that many thought was taboo. His response was unwavering support for that change and awareness to another product that should not be changed. He brought to my attention the critical clinical details in that product that made it necessary when operating around a certain tissue. I would have never known about those critical criteria without that conversation.

Scheduling meetings with multiple physicians takes four to six weeks or more, but catching them quickly for a five-minute conversation can usually be done within a couple days. It became more obvious during the pandemic how to get the time needed to make decisions quickly based on the right information that physicians possess. It is common these days for agenda time to be offered for review of supply chain opportunities at medical staff meetings, eliminating the need for supply chain to schedule separate meetings. There has been a transformation in the approach used when physician support is needed to make changes. In the past, it was common for the change to be presented with the savings potential as the reason. The newer approach is to be clearer on how the change will affect clinical practice. Opportunities that were resisted in the past are now better understood and, at times, it does not even affect how the physician delivers care. 

This evolution in how physicians are engaged with the supply chain has resulted in more efficient decision making, broader ownership for product decisions, ease of making operational changes, and new sources of information to come up with better ways of providing the service.  Physicians have even become involved in interview panels for leadership positions in supply chain.

The new normal of our supply chain should be learning from and taking advantage of the experiences we have had over time working with physicians. It continues to be important to invite physicians to regularly scheduled meetings using a standard value analysis process to make product decisions. Defined roles of physician leaders should be used to oversee these value analysis decisions. In addition to value analysis, physicians should be engaged to help with daily challenges and operational improvements. Seeking their ideas and support can expedite and add credibility to how the service is delivered.

LeAnn founded LeAnn R. Born Advisory Solutions, where she advises suppliers, providers, GPOs, and other industry partners about the healthcare supply chain. She helps clients drive strategies focused on improved population health, enhanced care experience, reduced cost, workforce well-being, and advanced health equity. Her background includes three decades of executive leadership of major health system supply chain services, program development with group purchasing organizations, and guidance to medical suppliers on effective sales strategies with customers. Before her consulting practice, LeAnn served as Vice President of Supply Chain at Fairview Health Services/M Health Fairview, Vice President of Contract, Program Services and Customer Contracting at Novation (now Vizient), and several positions leading up to interim Vice President of Supply Chain at Allina Health.

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