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Like many of his peers, Mike Hopkins stumbled into the field of healthcare supply chain management. His career path began with a part-time job delivering supplies for a hospital while attending junior college. In that role, he discovered a passion for logistics and managing vital supplies.
“I loved the people I worked with,” Hopkins reflects. He remembers being captivated by the commitment coworkers had to the hospital’s mission and their eagerness to make a difference. The experience set him on course for a highly successful career in managing supplies that are the lifeblood of healthcare systems.
As vice president of supply chain distribution and logistics for Northwestern Medicine, Hopkins is responsible for managing $250 million to $300 million of supplies each year. Since joining Northwestern in 2016, he has seen the organization grow dramatically from four hospitals to twelve today. Such momentous growth makes the task of managing supplies even more critical to keep clinical functions working smoothly.
Since 2018, Hopkins has overseen a project with far-reaching impact for not just inventory management but also the financial health of the organization. The task: digitize inventory management and clinical documentation through the implementations of Casechek and WaveMark software. These systems track high-priced products used in operating rooms and labs including stents, cardiac valves, endoscopy devices, and pacemakers.
Previously, these items were tracked by hand, with inventory specialists having to regularly monitor shelves to see how many items were in stock. After digitizing inventory by utilizing RFID technology, inventory specialists have the data they need on screen to determine what’s in stock, what they need to order, and which items are nearing their expiration date.
To put the plan in place, Hopkins had to convince stakeholders that the expense and effort to convert the inventory process to a data-driven automated system would be worthwhile. On a project like that, natural resistance to alter longstanding practices is always a hurdle, Hopkins says. “People do things the same way for years and are reluctant to change,” he says.
He made a persuasive case to finance and was given the go-ahead to implement a pilot project to prove the point. A Cath/EP Lab at one hospital was the test subject. “They were managing all of their supplies,” Hopkins says. “It was very labor-intensive.” The implementation went well, and after digitization the lab reduced inventory on hand by 37 percent while maintaining quality service standards.
From there, digitization across Northwestern was an easy sell. “Once everyone sees the benefits, they go and tell their peers about them,” Hopkins says. “Then it’s about how do we manage expectations about how quickly we can roll it out to the rest of the organization.”
The benefits of automating inventory show up in numerous ways. “For example, you might be reordering things that a doctor used to use, but he left the organization two years ago and no one is going to use that item again,” Hopkins says. A digital system can flag those instances so that the organization isn’t ordering things it doesn’t need or letting items expire before they are used. An item nearing expiration can be sent other Northwestern facility or returned to the manufacturer for credit or exchange for an item that is utilized.
The systems flag where waste is occurring in inventory management and Hopkins’s team uses that information to devise ways to eliminate it. After digitization, Hopkins and his team found that 8 percent to 10 percent of items tracked were lacking documentation.
An item can get misplaced or become lost to inventory management for many reasons. For instance, an item might be stored on a floor below the OR. The item gets sent upstairs for a procedure but isn’t used and gets lost before it goes back to storage. Another example: sometimes an item is used in a clinical procedure, but it never gets recorded in any document and it never appears on a bill, so the hospital doesn’t get reimbursed for it. Rectifying situations like those may come down to putting a label on a more prominent place on the package or collaborating with the OR teams on improvement initiatives.
Digitization has been a clear success. Five years after the project launched, Northwestern has reduced its inventory of high-priced clinical items by about 20 percent with a cost savings of about 7 percent, Hopkins says. That means the organization spends less to stock clinical items and fewer items expire before they can be used.
Along with a passion for improving inventory management efficiency, Hopkins is enthused by helping others advance their abilities in the field. He likes to encourage those on his team to take the initiative to address challenges. “I like to show people how you can use problem solving within their jobs,” Hopkins says. He also guides members of his team on career advancement, pointing them to appropriate educational opportunities and training sessions. “We do a lot of lunch-and-learns where anyone can sit in,” he says.
Hopkins works to continuously improve how his department functions. Daily huddles focus on problem-solving to address ongoing concerns. Managers are held accountable to solve the matter. “There’s nothing more frustrating for an employee when you have a consistent issue that keeps coming up and nobody does anything about it,” Hopkins says.
Solving problems is certainly a motivator for Hopkins, but working to help others succeed is a more powerful inspiration. “My passion for my work is really about watching other people grow their careers and succeeding,” Hopkins says. “I enjoy being a mentor to those who are passionate about healthcare supply chain.”
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