Comment: Hospital inventory management: the data doesn’t lie

Mark Frankish, data scientist at SAS UK & Ireland, explores what hospitals can do to address the issue of inventory management in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic

  • The UK Government’s unnecessary purchase of ventilators was far from an isolated incident. Similarly, the Canadian government spent $1.1billion and yet experts believe most may never be used, even in a worse-case scenario
  • The Nursing Times suggest nurses spend roughly one week per month hunting down equipment and supplies. Yet wireless tracking solutions prevent this time going to waste, helping to prevent losses and theft while also informing asset management, maintenance and purchasing decisions
  • The first step to optimising hospital capacity and equipment is providing access to the relevant information. An intuitive, web-based interface will help staff obtain critical information such as total capacity, inventory of specialised capacity, and availability on a required frequency

Inventory management solutions are a vital tool to help hospitals keep track of medical equipment and supplies

When a medical emergency strikes, can you be certain where your ventilators are?

Because, when lives are at stake, any delay can become deadly.

Hospital administrators and clinicians are under enormous pressure to ensure vital equipment is properly tracked and can be found easily.

Yet ageing hospital systems aren’t always up to the task.

The need to understand resource and inventory management has become much more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic

The need to understand resource and inventory management has become much more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consider the Nightingale hospitals, for example.

Rapidly building hospital capacity without thinking through all the needs first failed to make effective use of resources.

Originally planned to have 4,000 beds, the Nightingale Hospital London treated just 54 patients between April and May due to spare capacity in the city’s other medical facilities.

Similarly, the Government spent £569m buying 20,900 ventilators to keep people alive during the pandemic.

But a lack of demand means NHS hospitals have used just a few of them.

All but 2,150 of the machines it bought are still being held in a Ministry of Defence warehouse in case they are needed in the second wave of the disease.

And the problem is not confined to the UK. In Canada, for example, there were similar issues with ventilator purchases.

The 40,000 ventilators the Canadian government ordered came with a $1.1billion price tag. But experts believe that, even in a worst-case scenario, these machines may never be used.

While the need is great and hospitals are putting in the investment needed; the allocation of resources is far from effective.

As our healthcare system tackles the second wave of the pandemic, it’s crucial we overcome the mistakes and obstacles of the first

And UK hospitals continue to suffer serious shortages of vital medical equipment during the NHS’s ongoing winter crisis.

In addition, lost and stolen equipment costs the NHS millions each year; and this is why NHS trusts have started running lost equipment ‘amnesties’ for the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment which goes missing each year.

The fruits of effective inventory management

So what can be done to address the issue and create better patient outcomes?

Trusts are turning to technologies that track equipment throughout the hospital workflow, often in real time.

Wireless tracking solutions can help prevent loss and theft, but can also help inform asset management, maintenance and purchasing decisions.

The revelation by The Nursing Times shows that time wasted searching for equipment can slow response times and delay procedures, potentially compromising patient safety.

The first step to being able to manage and optimise hospital capacity, critical equipment and supply inventories is to have access to the relevant information.

With advanced data analytics capabilities and a data collection aid, an up-to-date data ingestion and data provisioning process can be implemented across all environments.

And data, otherwise lost or siloed, is made intelligible and exploitable.

When this insight is viewed through an intuitive web-based interface, hospital managers can obtain critical information such as total capacity, inventory of specialised capacity such as ventilator beds, utilisation, and availability on a required frequency (daily, weekly, monthly etc).

The use of AI and machine learning tools to model hospital processes and capital efficiency will further provide new insights for strategic planning and the scaling of operations based on each trust’s unique context.

Real-time, detailed insight into hospital operations will deliver substantial financial and efficiency dividends.

And inventory across all departments can be effectively managed, eliminating unnecessary searching times for tracked equipment and the needless hoarding and loss of stock.

The equipment needed for surgery remains properly calibrated and logged and can be easily readied in the operating theatre for use when required.

Effectively-managed inventory also reduces the need for renting equipment, contributing to lower annual capital spend.

The first step to being able to manage and optimise hospital capacity, critical equipment and supply inventories is to have access to the relevant information

As our healthcare system tackles the second wave of the pandemic, it’s crucial we overcome the mistakes and obstacles of the first.

Having a real-time, comprehensive understanding of what equipment there is and where will give trusts a key advantage now and in future health emergencies.

And data and advanced analytics are the backbone of an effective inventory tracking and management system.

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