Supply-chain experts attending the 45th annual Association for Healthcare Resource & Materials Management Conference in San Diego Aug. 12-15 spent a good deal of time pondering why, nearly two decades after a global identification and tracking system became available, healthcare still hasnt been able to establish a synchronized data standard that would assign universal identifiers to hospitals and healthcare products.
Such identifiers, according to participants at a Coalition for Healthcare eStandards, or CHeS, panel, would enable tracking of products and purchasing trends and would ensure items arrived at their proper locations. As a result, the healthcare system would experience improved patient safety, and providers could lower supply-chain costs.
Well, I may be a lowly reporter without nearly as many letters after my name as the Ph.D.s, FACHEs and Esqs. who have been working on this mind-boggling issue for years, but after just two days at the AHRMM conference, Im certain I know whats behind the holdupletters.
You read correctly, its lettersthose 26 little characters that make up our alphabet. Throughout my two-day coverage of AHRMM (an acronym I still cant keep straight), I repeatedly heard participants referring to the UPN, the GLN, the PDU and the UNSPSC as if they were universally understood phrases. As a relative newbie to the wonderful world of healthcare supply-chain issues, I was completely in the dark about their meaning. I felt like I had parachuted into a country where everyone but me spoke the language.
I spent a good part of my time at AHRMM wondering if Id missed the line for a translation book that would explain all the crazy terminology. I came to the conclusion that such communication disconnect has to be at least partially responsible for the foot-dragging culture that has enveloped attempts to establish universal identifiers within the healthcare supply chain.
For those readers already feeling lost in an alphabet maze, hold tight: Im about to reveal way more than you probably ever wanted to know about the electronic tracking standards that may one day be coming to a hospital near you.
Anyone vaguely familiar with how healthcare supplies make their way into the hands of medical providers knows that keeping track of those products and how much is on hand at any given time can be a nightmare. Add the fact hospitals have little means of tracking down recalled products and its clear safety is a real issue within the supply chain.
Supply-chain experts have long proposed assigning a universal product number, or UPN, to distinguish medical-surgical products by type and lot. So, for example, every 20 units of a specific type and brand of syringes would be labeled with the same UPN. Should a recall be necessary, the manufacturer could send out a list of the UPNs affected by the recall, and distributors and hospitals would have no problem identifying whether they have those products in stock or if theyve been used on patients.
Hospitals could also determine how many of a particular product they purchased over a given period of time by calling up a tracking report on a specific UPN code.
But before UPNs can be assigned to healthcare supplies, the healthcare industry will need to come to a consensus about what existing global identification system it will use to identify and track products. The system many are looking to is the one designed by GS1 US, according to CHeS Associate Executive Director Peggy Brody. GS1 US, formerly known as the Uniform Code Council, has developed a variety of identification systems and uses bar codes, radio frequency identification and a global data-synchronization network to operate the systems.
Among GS1s products is the Global Location Number, or GLN. A GLN is a unique and universally used number that would be assigned to hospitals. Each facility would receive its own number, enabling manufacturers, suppliers and distributors to use one code when shipping supplies to a hospital. The GLN would ensure products were routed to their proper locations through each step in the supply chain. It would also enable suppliers to identify who received specific products in the case of a recall.
The United Nations Standard Products & Services Code, or UNSPSC, is another GS1 product. It would give codes to specific types and classes of products so that when a hospital purchasing agent is looking to buy a certain type of bandage they could pull up a list of the manufacturers who produce that product
Finally the PDU, or Product Data Utility, is the data bank that would store regularly update descriptions and information about healthcare products using the various standardized codes.
There you have ita brain-full of facts about data synchronization. If you feel overloaded, that may tell you why nothing has yet been accomplished.