Free Technology Perks

August 13, 2010

How to get more out of your office supply vendor

Competition has always been the name of the game for medical office suppliers. Vendors seem to be constantly trying to achieve some tiny competitive edge over their opponents in an effort to secure your office’s business. In this battle for your business, suppliers have continued to grow their use of technology perks provided to their customers, which are intended to make your life easier, and to in turn ensure you stay a customer.

If your suppliers have become complacent, assuming your account is a done deal, and you only see the occasional “Holiday Greetings” card come December, now might be the time to revisit what your current supplier (and competitors) has to offer to ease the management of your supply chain - particularly in terms of technology tools they can provide free.

When considering your suppliers, you should evaluate how far the prospective supplier goes in providing technology for your office. Supplier-provided technologies - from advanced Web-based ordering tools to PDAs for inventory management - can help you get a better handle on your supply operations.

A good starting point for opening up the discussion is your sales representative. Ask for specifics on tools such as advanced Web reporting, barcoding systems, PC-based inventory management software, or similar products they offer that might help your office save money and have a more satisfying experience with their company.

If you are looking to leverage a little free technology for managing your supplies, here are some points to consider:

Technology for technology’s sake
We see it all the time, and retail electronics stores count on it: the urge to have the latest gadget with the latest features. That might work for buying MP3 players, but it’s a bad approach to choosing options from your medical supply vendor. I’ve seen a small office jump from faxing in weekly orders on a decade-old paper order form to buying a wireless barcode scanner and barcoding nearly the entire office in hopes of saving money. Unfortunately, sometimes technology for the sake of technology leads to a bad fit. In that case, the tiny office spent more than $1,000 in up-front costs, only to realize that the neat equipment was not a fit for their work flow. The interest waned, and they reverted to a happy medium of using a PC to submit orders electronically, via their supplier’s free Web site, while their pricey barcode scanner and labeling system went unused. Using the free tools supplied on the vendor’s site instead, the office was able to get the supply use reports and similar data that they had hoped would have come from the system they originally purchased. Remember, the most advanced (or expensive) options aren’t always the best options for your specific office.

Online ordering
Regardless of your practice size, you should at minimum be exploring basic online ordering functionality, which is provided free by most vendors. Even if you still do most things on paper, using Web ordering allows you to get some of the benefits of a software package designed for purchasing - for free. While it may lack some functionality and won’t completely replace an in house Inventory software package, it can give you some basic ongoing information about your expenditures, as well as making ordering supplies a little more reliable than verbal or fax orders.
Supplier Web sites are easy to navigate, and usually offer the ability to build standard lists of items you reorder frequently. If you’re already using online ordering with your supplier, perhaps you should explore building templates or standard lists that speed up the reordering process. If you are unsure, contact your sales rep, and ask how you can learn about advanced features of Web ordering, or if they would be willing to sit down and do a quick tutorial in your office. If you are considering a new vendor, ask them to demo their Web site and the tools available to you. And, don’t be shy about providing constructive feedback to your vendor. If you would benefit from seeing something on the Web site, chances are other customers would too.

Gadgets and barcoding
Some companies offer to provide free, or for a rental fee, electronic gadgets to assist with managing your supplies. These are often some type of barcode scanner or wireless PDA device intended to improve your inventory controls. These systems vary greatly from vendor to vendor. If you consider going this route, ask your vendor to let you do a three-month free trial before you commit. While it may seem useful at first, such devices can be problematic technically, as well as operationally, for reasons that usually become clear only after you’ve tried to inventory your stock late one Friday night, when technical support already closed or when the last battery in the device has died. These devices have their place, but proceed cautiously in these waters, and make sure the device improves your process, instead of you changing your process to fit the device. Work with your vendor to see what they provide for free, and how it might fit your office flow. Larger offices seem to benefit more from these types of technologies.

Free interfacing to your computer systems
In clinics with more advanced information technology infrastructure, you have options to consider surrounding direct integration and communication between your medical supplier’s computer systems and yours. Some suppliers offer (sometimes at a cost, sometime free) to provide that interface. These connections can vary in complexity from simple updates of accounting data, to usage reporting, all the way up to (in custom scenarios) just-in-time ordering. While the latter is likely only going to be seen in larger, enterprise-scale practices, talk to your vendor about their ability to interface to your accounting systems or your patient billing system. You may be able to make your bookkeepers very happy by saving keystrokes at the end of the month, by the simple transfer of a file, at little or no cost to you.

Usage reporting
Once you get a bit savvy with using you supplier’s Web site for orders, start exploring your usage reporting options. If you are shopping for a new vendor, again, ask for a demo of their tools. Vendors can pull together your ordering history, and put dollar values on your expenditures for you, and put that on the Web site for you to use. Using such tools can lead to revelations about your supply ordering and usage patterns. Using this type of a view, supplied by your vendor, you may realize that by ordering monthly, instead of weekly, you can reduce your overall shipping costs. You may see seasonal patterns that you were unaware of, and be able to better manage finances based on that information. Whatever the analysis yields, getting that data in a viewable, understandable format from your vendor can be a big help - especially if they provide that service for free.

Regardless of where you are now with leveraging technology to improve your supply management, consider revisiting these matters with your sales rep. Talk to the vendor about developments that their company has made and new technologies they might have to offer you. In most cases, the vendor wants to make your life easier, so you are a happier customer.

Educate yourself on what technology options you have and see if you can gain efficiencies by adopting a little more (free or low-cost) technology tools in your supply management process.

Jonathan McCallister is a client-site IT manager for a major healthcare consulting firm, and he is currently assigned to a 140-physician practice. He has worked in healthcare IT management for more than eight years and in general IT management for more than a decade. He can be reached via physicianspractice@cmpmedica.com.