Its no secret that illness is big business. But it wasnt until I caught a glimpse of how many companies eagerly line up to pitch their wares to those holders of the hospital purse stringsmaterials managersthat I realized while patients may be sick, the healthcare business is quite healthy. So healthy in fact, other industries are tapping its financial veins in hopes of improving their own cash flow.
Take, for example, the recent VHA Leadership Conference, which took place May 20-23 in Denver. More than 300 businessesnot all in the arena of providing care to the sickcame out to sell their goods and services to hospitals. As Jody Hatcher, senior vice president of VHAs group purchasing organization, Novation , put it: There was everything from catfish to CT scans on the floor of the Denver Convention Center. The catfish, along with samples of a few other delights, such as chocolate cake, came courtesy of U.S. Foodservice and Sara Lee, two well-known food manufacturers that apparently have decided if a customers grocery shopping plans are waylaid by a trip to the hospital then by golly, the groceries will come to that customer.
The opportunity to sample food wasnt the only little enticement companies came armed with in an effort to grab hospital supply purchasers attention. Siemens Medical Solutions, an IT and hospital management consulting company, offered free chair massages to anyone who came by its booth and spent the requisite two minutes it took to collect information about its products, shake hands and obtain a complementary massage ticket. Another business was giving away those strange, rubbery yo-yos that resemble psychedelic jellyfish. I guess even healthcare companies have joined the ranks of Madison Avenue executives who believe the path to customers pocketbooks can best be reached by peaking the desires of their children.
But despite suppliers best efforts towards subtle enticement, it seems their sales ploys hardly got by materials managers unnoticed for what they were. In fact, materials managers devoted a whole segment of their Supply Chain Hot Topic session to interesting tactics some sales reps have employed to get their products through the doors and onto the purchasing lists of hospitals. There were stories of sales reps sneaking through back doors and trash areas in an effort to get to doctors and other medical staff that can exert influence over the purchasing process.
Mickey Pettus, vice president supply-chain custom services with Novation, suggested, however, that materials managers could learn a few things from sales reps. He pointed out one reasons sales representatives are so successful at culling support from doctors for their products is they spend time with physicians to find out their needs and concerns in treating patients. How many of you scrub in from time to time (with the surgeons)? he asked during the discussion, noting medical device and other sales reps often are present in the ER. Look at it this way: If you did (scrub in) at least youd get to meet the sales reps, because theyre there working the room at 7 a.m.
But a few hospitals are clamping down on such aggressive tactics by policing and limiting sales reps visits. Some are employing new credentialing systems that make vendors register with an identification and security agency, which then supplies the reps with electronic IDs. The reps have to swipe those IDs at a kiosk each time they enter the hospital, and if they visit at an unauthorized time theyre denied entry.
Security companies might want to make note that purchasing such a system for their hospitals seemed to be an appealing idea to a number of the materials managers at the Hot Topic session. One participant jokingly suggested upping the ante when it comes to monitoring aggressive sales reps: What about a microchip implanted in the ears of (supply) reps? he asked the crowd. Is there that level of interest in getting control over vendor reps?