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October 4, 2023

Next in Line

When most people think about hospital employees, they think about the people whom they interact with most directly on the visit–receptionists, nurses, doctors, other kinds of patient care technicians. 

But hospitals are vast, complex facilities, with thousands of different kinds of specific, often urgent needs to keep it running, from medicines and needles to hospital gowns and bed sheets. It takes what’s called “supply chain management” to make sure all of the goods, data and finances related to these products and services flow smoothly through the system.

That’s a fact that Dr. Kim Whitehead knows all too well. A former supply chain manager with over 20 years of experience in the field, Whitehead is now a professor at Anderson University. Her research is in what’s known as “knowledge transfer” within the supply chain more generally, but in recent years she’s become more interested in healthcare thanks to her collaboration with AnMed.

“One of my students did an internship in Computer Information Systems at AnMed, and he met Paulette [Simmons, Materials Management Contracts Specialist],” recalls Whitehead. “She said, ‘hey, we’d be interested in meeting some of your students, would you be interested in coming to one of our meetings?”

The meetings Simmons was referring to were those organized by the SC Society for Healthcare Supply Chain, a professional membership group (PMG) of the South Carolina Hospital Association which she had long been an active member in. The Society is a chapter of the national group that works to educate and promote the healthcare supply chain profession.

Simmons’ offer led to a frequent collaboration between the PMG and Whitehead, who began bringing her students to the statewide and occasionally national meetings of the group. 

“It’s made a huge impact [on these students],” Whitehead says. “You hear so much in academia that may or may not ever apply to your life. But when they get out in the field and they start talking to people that do this every single day and they do it for a living, and they realize this is real, and I can do this for a living and I can have fun at my job.”

Whitehead also thinks healthcare supply chain has a particular appeal to her students because of the larger impact they can make in a hospital. 

“They realize they don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse to save somebody’s life,” she points out. “They can do it indirectly by managing the supply chain. If a nurse needs something and it’s not there, somebody could die.”

Dylan Tyler (Supply Chain, Class of 2024), one of Whitehead’s students who recently attended an SC Healthcare Supply Chain conference, said that that message really hit home with him at the conference.

“All of the people in the healthcare supply chain are working together, in a sense, to provide help and services to those in need,” he notes. “Although they are still businesses, their main focus is to come together and help others.”

Tyler also says that he loves the fundamental problem-solving aspect of supply chain work, which is a key aspect of healthcare supply chain in particular. As a seasoned professional and scholar, Whitehead too finds healthcare supply chain fascinating, both because of the variety and urgency of the needs, which makes it different from many other fields.

“If I’m in manufacturing and producing the same widget every single day, there’s not a lot of variety there,” she says. “In the healthcare system, things change so rapidly–equipment changes, procedures change, FDA regulations change–it’s so much more dynamic.”

Yasmin Martin (Supply Chain/Accounting, Class of 2025) another student attendee, says she got interested in hospital supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic. She says she really just enjoyed hearing professionals in the field talk about the challenges and get into the proverbial weeds. 

“One of the problems that was brought up was to get everyone the same information, and also use common language,” she enthuses. “I got to hear the terms they would use in their place of employment. For example, KPI [is] key performance indicator, FOB [is] free on board, CQO [is] cost quality outcomes.” 

The students all report strong enthusiasm for the conference in particular and the field in general. Whitehead wants to continue building upon her relationship with AnMed and other hospitals. She knows what’s at stake.

“It’s important to get students out there to learn that these jobs exist. We’re dependent on what goes on in our healthcare system and your community,” she says in conclusion. “You may or may not have any idea how it all works, but we need good people drawn into those positions. We need succession plans. We need to be bringing students in straight out of school, we need internships and co-ops.

“That’s really hard for the hospitals to do. But I think there’s got to be a way to do more of it, because we need the best of the best in our healthcare system.”