Roaming the Halls: When to Open Your Hospital Doors to Suppliers

Imagine you are back in the 1990s and you have a product to sell. Your key customers are doctors and other clinicians that work at a hospital. You have spent months, if not years, building relationships with these clinicians and they trust the products you sell. You meet with them, they love what they see, and they buy it. Simple and easy. Now fast-forward to 2012 and think about that same scenario, you have a product to sell and your customer is a clinician in a hospital. Only things are not like they used to be. You don’t have the same relationship with the clinicians as you used to and there are all types of assorted buying groups popping up, taking away your direct contact with that clinician. So what do you do? You need to figure out what the new rules of engagement are and how to adapt to them. Healthcare providers are going through the same challenges.

So let’s tackle a pressing question these healthcare providers have, “When can a supplier talk to clinicians?” As a shared service organization, you are challenged with this situation every day. You have suppliers you are currently working with that want access to your clinicians for existing projects, and of course, new projects as well. You also have suppliers that you are not currently working with who want access to these same clinicians to try and develop new business. As the shared service organization, you can only provide direction to your customers, the member hospitals who are a part of your organization. So what should you tell them? What should be permitted? Here are some guidelines I have developed:

1. Suppliers cannot talk to clinicians while a competitive process is open
This seems obvious, but it needs to be enforced. Suppliers should not have access to clinicians (or any other influencer of a decision) during a competitive buying process for anything related to that process, unless explicitly stated in the documentation. If suppliers need to deal with clinicians on existing projects, that is permitted, but should be monitored closely. It is key to ensure that suppliers are not able to have any influence on the overall buying decision once the formal process has been started.

2. You must provide a forum for collaboration
Since you need to close off communication during a formal procurement process, you need to create a forum where clinicians and suppliers can collaborate and discuss new ideas and solutions. Obviously, this needs to be done outside of the formal buying process. There are a couple of ways that this can be done:

  • It can be done before the formal buying process begins, through a Request for Information process or a Call for Solutions or Ideas. Even a Request for Supplier Qualification process would accomplish this collaboration. The key is to have a process where there is no obligation to make a buying decision, and suppliers and clinicians and share information freely about solving a particular problem or issue. Suppliers would be invited to discuss and present their ideas and clinicians would have an opportunity to ask questions to get to know the company and its products and services better. This may even include clinical trials for a small number of products and solutions.
  • It can be done through scheduled innovation fairs or days where suppliers are invited to submit their latest and greatest new solutions and technologies to be reviewed. This would work if many provider organizations (hospitals, shared service organizations, government ministries, group purchasing organizations and clinicians) were able to come together and host a joint innovation fair. This would be more than just exhibits on a conference floor, as there would be strict criteria used for the applicants. The focus of the innovations would need to be showing return on investment (maximizing value for money) and improving patient outcomes.

3. If it feels wrong, it probably is
Many organizations have created codes of conduct and ethics, which is a step in the right direction. However, does this really guide someone’s behaviour? You need to ensure people are using their best judgment when allowing your suppliers access to clinicians. If it feels like something fishy is going on, there is probably some truth to it. In order to avoid this all together, one of my hospital clients does not allow their employees to go out socially with their suppliers for fear that the supplier may buy them a meal and it will be perceived that this might influence a future buying process. This might be extreme, but the fewer precarious situations like this you put yourself in, the lower the risk to the organization. Use examples to educate your staff on the right and wrong things to do and allow them to use their best judgment. It is also important to make sure you educate your suppliers on these rules, so they don’t put your employees in unethical positions.

Giving suppliers access to your clinicians is important in the advancement of innovative healthcare solutions. In trying to do more with less, providers are forced to innovate and find better solutions. Accessing suppliers can go a long way in doing that because they have a wealth of knowledge to be shared. You just need to be careful as to when to allow for that collaboration. Following the guidelines above will give you the opportunity to increase collaboration between your clinicians and your suppliers, and will also give you piece of mind that you are being compliant with government legislation. Ensure you implement these guidelines within your organizations and work with your suppliers to make them work effectively. If you do, you will see the improved performance and collaboration happen quickly.