The Teamsters' 15-day walkout on United Parcel Service, which ended last week, hit a nerve with many hospital materials managers.
More than one-quarter of respondents to an Aug. 14 survey by VHA reported the UPS strike was "significantly" affecting their organizations. Just over half the respondents called the impact of the strike "moderate," while the remainder, 23.2%, said it had been "minimal."
Within 48 hours of the faxed survey, 224 of the 500 hospital materials managers who received it had responded. "The response rate alone indicates that materials managers are paying close attention to the strike's impact," says Larry Dooley, vice president for distribution services at VHA, an Irving, Texas-based alliance representing roughly 1,000 hospitals.
UPS deliveries had dropped to once a week from daily at VHA organizations, according to the survey, although more than 80% of respondents still received some UPS shipments. What's more, delivery volume had fallen to five or six packages daily from a pre-strike average of 200 at VHA organizations.
The gap was being filled by resourceful suppliers and UPS' competitors. Listing the strike's top lessons, VHA spokesman Lynn Gentry says, "Learn to love alternative carriers."
Federal Express became the most common carrier with more than 98% of respondents reporting supply shipments. The U.S. Postal Service came next at 87%, followed by Airborne Express at 81%.
Try as they might, though, carriers were having a hard time keeping up with demand. Thus, strike lesson No. 2, according to Gentry: "Love and appreciate your sales rep."
That was particularly true at rural hospitals, which have fewer alternatives to UPS than their urban counterparts.
In Seymour, Ind., 107-bed Memorial Hospital had to postpone several cataract and orthopedic surgeries because it didn't have the implants on hand, purchasing director Ed Mead says. The hospital ended up relying on supplier representatives to do double duty as product couriers. Reps traveled from Indianapolis "once or twice a day instead of once or twice a week," Mead says.
Besides slowing incoming supplies, the UPS strike also clogged outgoing shipments. In Memorial's area, Federal Express stopped picking up outgoing packages during the strike, Mead says.
The cutback in service did have a silver lining, at least where shipping costs are concerned, he says.
"We've discovered that so many things we send overnight don't need to be sent overnight," he says. As a result, Memorial expects to reduce its outgoing overnight packages.
As for UPS' fears that it might lose customers because of the walkout, Mead disagrees: "I'm a very forgiving person. If UPS comes back tomorrow, we'd use them."