Keeping track of orthopedic devices and instruments throughout the supply chain is a challenge, as manufacturers strive to reduce sedentary inventory and improve transparency across all communications and touch-points. We spoke with logistics software and inventory management providers who seek to improve the coordination of orthopedic products in order to provide manufacturers with a competitive advantage in the market. Many of them are looking toward advanced technologies that will simplify, digitize and automate the device tracking process across the supply chain to the point of care.
Our panel included:
- Josh Weeks, President, Movemedical
- Howard Weathersby, Vice President, Global Business Development, WebOps
- Chris Riedel, Chief Executive Officer, ConnectSx
- Ethan S. Lauer, Chief Executive Officer, ImplantBase
What is the biggest logistics challenge that orthopedic device operations teams face today? How are you helping them overcome that challenge?
Weeks: The biggest challenge in operations is very basic in concept: to deliver the true “requirements” for a surgery. This is the foundation of all medical device operations, from fulfillment to inventory optimization. It’s challenging because the translation from surgeon to rep to operations (often at multiple levels and sites) is slow, error-prone and often not specific. Most companies have tried multiple tools to combat this, but due to low user adoption, this communication issue doesn’t get solved. Inventory management doesn’t improve either.
We help our manufacturing partners overcome this in three ways: 1) Make the mobile experience fast for the rep/provider, so input happens early in the surgery lifecycle; 2) Create more relevant “sales” catalogs that accurately reflect the current phone/email communication between reps and operations, and 3) Utilize advanced machine learning to capture the difference between loaner requests (which is usually all manufacturers see) and requirements (where the real magic happens).
Weathersby: There is nothing unreasonable about patients and surgeons expecting the best possible fit and function from orthopedic implants. That means that the requirement to have every option available at the time of surgery will not go away any time soon, even with shrinking inventories and rising transportation costs. Operations teams need tools that will extend their planning horizon, match up current and projected product availability with demand, and minimize waste in the form of idle kits and sterile item expirations. With over 60 current dashboards and hundreds of options, our Advanced Analytics package puts the answers to Ops’ critical requirements at their fingertips.
Riedel: I think one of the biggest challenges is transparency and visibility across the supply chain. Another is providing distributed access to help manage that supply chain. We’ve got these pinch points where we’ve got traditionally very specific roles managing the logistics and the distribution, but many hands are involved in the logistics medical device supply chain. Distributing some of the responsibility and the capabilities to help manage those devices as they move through the supply chain is critically important.
We are building applications that allow people who aren’t necessarily the custodians of the devices to take action on those devices using UDI, the unique device identifier regulation. It gives you a way to identify devices all the way down to the lot level, especially when you implement barcodes or RFID. So, allowing other people who are a part of that workflow or process to take action and then send data back to a system of records so that everybody across the supply chain can see where things are going, that’s going to be critical.
Lauer: The truth is that most orthopedic device manufacturers rely on fragmented systems. Data might enter one system—like Salesforce—and have to make the jump to QuickBooks or an ERP, then to Excel and finally to a reporting system like Business Objects, Tableau or Cognos (or all three!). Every jump between systems introduces the possibility of human error and misreporting, takes time and inherently creates blind spots that imperil growth and profitability. We eliminate these blind spots across the critical functions of inventory, sales operations and supply chain and give manufacturers a whole-system approach that transforms how they work from a fragmented approach to a single, holistic platform.
What does the future of medical device tracking look like?
Weeks: I would love to say that medical device tracking will get easier, but I think the future brings more demands and complexity. For example, a major trend shows facilities, particularly Ambulatory Surgery Centers (ASCs), demanding that less inventory be brought in or stored on site. So, kits and trays need to be smaller and ideally componentized with new configurations, yet manufacturers still have to stock legacy products and configurations for revisions and surgeon preferences. Our manufacturing partners are significantly expanding their kit catalogs, which makes tracking that much more difficult.
Another major trend is guide and implant personalization, which creates additional supply chain needs and communication. In short, margins are decreasing while requirements and complexity are increasing.
However, we are seeing significant commitment from manufacturers and providers to tackle this problem. Unwilling to settle for piecemeal tools that don’t move the needle, operations leaders are demanding a more comprehensive, modern solution. I believe this focus of industry leaders combined with easy-to-use, scalable software automation is the hope for the future.
Weathersby: AIDC (automated information data capture) technologies will continue to evolve to provide visibility and data on everything from individual item identification to custody changes and dwell times in every node of the supply chain. RFID is well established, and technologies like Bluetooth, ANT and Zigbee are extending their reach into areas in the supply chain where UHF and HF RFID are sub-optimal. We’re already using the very granular and real-time data points from some of these systems that can feed our analytics, which drives big improvements on the balance sheet.
Riedel: The future of device logistics is going to be driven by a lot of the new technologies that we see coming out now, including automation and predictive analytics. I think it’s really automating these old, antiquated manual processes and bringing a lot of visibility into the existing supply chain. The medical devices provide value across the entire continuum of care, from pre-scheduling all the way through to post-operative care, if it’s a surgical device. I think providing value across the entire chain is going to be incredibly important, and that’s going to require a lot more transparency than we have and also a lot more automation so that things can be more efficient and effective.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and distributed ledgers (blockchain) are going to play a huge role, similar to the role they’re playing currently in consumer logistics. There is a lot of price compression happening in the marketplace, and AI and advanced analytics are going to come into play to make sure that the waste is being pulled out of the system and the system is running as efficiently as possible. Also, from a compliance perspective and a regulatory perspective, when you have things like blockchain or distributed ledger, it’s a way for companies to stay more compliant in a much more efficient manner. So, I think that we are going to see those things find their way into healthcare.
Lauer: At ImplantBase, our central premise is that the sales rep is the most important player in the connection between a company’s products and its customers. When the reps are the ones funneling information into that chain, everyone has higher-fidelity data to make better business decisions. Therefore, to us, the future of medical device tracking is one in which the rep is digitally connected to the supply chain and finance functions, anytime and anywhere.
What is a recent enhancement you’ve made to your tracking tools?
Weeks: We categorize enhancements as either “user experience” or “capability enablement.” In the past quarter, some of my favorite changes to user experience have been adding more advanced offline scanning, improved user dashboards and more interactive analytics. On the capability side, we are launching our native RFID, which means that tags will be scanned and reconciled immediately within our app, factoring expected loans. This will finally maximize RFID efficiency in the orthopedic industry.
Weathersby: We’ve been doing more with AI, both in functionality and as a component of our development stack. We built an AI feature for a very large customer, and now we’re adapting the concept for the rest of our users. We’ve also added a low code development platform (LCDP) that we’re using for new applications to provide very clean and focused user interfaces for specialized needs that leverage our extensive back-end functionality and feed analytics.
Riedel: We’ve got a couple of patents for which we’re working on building technology. One of those is helping to deliver support at the point of care for devices. If we can bring some transparency to the supply chain and we know what’s being used, we can deliver remote support, surgical technique instructions or instructions for sterilization so that people don’t have to go searching for those things.
One of the things that we’re looking into is the implementation of a distributed ledger to make sure that we’re tracking these devices to the point of use down to the lot or the serial level. This is going to be an incredibly important component, because having an immutable chain of custody for medical devices is going to be really key.
We need to be thinking more critically about how we track connected devices, because it’s not just the device we need to track, but also the software that’s associated with those devices. The software is an organic, living, breathing thing that can experience vulnerabilities over periods of time. We have to know where those devices are and what software is associated with those devices so if there is a vulnerability, it can be addressed.
Lauer: ImplantBase is an all-in-one, fully featured orthopedic-specific application, so it is equipped to handle the vast majority of processes and functions specific to ortho companies. These days, while we are working with customers to extend the capabilities of some core features, we continue to integrate with a greater number of back-end financial and supply chain systems (SAP, Oracle, SyteLine, NetSuite, QuickBooks, etc.). Enhancing these capabilities is essential to enabling our customers to gain critical visibility, insights and widespread adoption.
Heather Tunstall is an ORTHOWORLD Contributor.