Fred Howard’s job, in some ways, is quite simple. He buys what Union Medical Center needs.
In reality, though, his job is incredibly complicated and complex. From big-ticket items like new construction and medical equipment to the most mundane, but essential, items like needles, scrubs and bed linens, Howard has to make sure there’s an adequate supply of everything Union needs to provide the high-quality care their patients have come to expect.
And it’s not only the materials themselves that have grown and changed over time.
“The job has evolved so much, particularly over the last 20 years,” Howard, who currently serves as President of the SC Society of Hospital Materials Management, explains. “When I first started in this business almost 30 years ago, there really wasn't even a group purchasing organization (GPO) per se out there. Materials managers at the time basically had to bid out to distributors and do it all themselves. A lot of it was cherry-picking different things trying to get the better price on each item. Whereas now, with the GPO in place, you're talking about a whole different supply situation.”
Of course, the demands at a small rural healthcare facility versus a larger hospital closer to suppliers and in a more crowded environment can be quite different. But at the end of the day they are all grappling with the same realities of budgeting, consolidation and capital campaigns which are a constant in today’s healthcare world.
“Our main function is to work with distributors and folks in the hospital [to create] the supply chain,” Howard points out. “We need to make decisions on supplies that best fit the patient's need and that is dependent on what type of procedures and what type of things you do in your facility.”
This is an even greater challenge as hospitals move to a “just-in-time” philosophy that requires more tightly coordinated delivery schedules and reduced inventories that make the organization lighter and nimbler, but also torques up the pressure for a material manager.
“The benefit of that is you don't have to stock as much in your storeroom,” Howard notes. “When I first came to Union Medical Center, we had $250,000 worth of inventory and materials management. Today we have $45,000. That leads to cost savings, because there's a cost associated with the amount of inventory that you stock on hand. But it's really important that a materials manager maintains that smaller stock and knows what he's doing. You have to think ahead a little bit and think more contingently.”
Howard sees professional membership groups like the SC Society of Hospital Materials Management (SC SHMM) as essential for managers who are navigating the evolving technological and supply-chain landscape of the modern healthcare world.
“I can tell you within the next three to four years, even materials management as we talk about right now will be totally different—there will be a totally different way of doing things,” he contends. “The technology will just keep going.”
He credits the speakers and variety of subjects covered at the society’s meetings and conferences with keeping him up to date on the field, as well as the reliable network of colleagues he can tap for troubleshooting.
“The education provided is second to none,” he says. “I think we are good at tracking where the supply chain is going and what best practices are. We have a lot of materials managers that are just the best at what they do. And they come and they do presentations and you can learn about what other hospitals are doing.”