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Navigating Real-World Challenges in Sterile Processing -- Part 1: Fostering Collaborative Vendor Relationships 

[Do your vendors feel like you both are "in this thing together?" Or is there conflict, distrust, and broken processes? The following guest article by Rebecca Lauber, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL, LSSGB, NREMT seeks to speak into this conversation with part 1 of a 2-part series on fostering collaborative vendor relationships in your facility. We hope you enjoy! * Beyond Clean Editors]

 Written by Rebecca Lauber, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL, LSSGB, NREMT & Member of the Beyond Clean Advisory Group

A mural of healthcare workers

As an experienced sterile processing professional, I have had the privilege of working in numerous healthcare facilities, each with its own unique challenges. Time and again, I've found myself in situations where collaborative vendor relationships and comprehensive policies have been the key to navigating real-world scenarios that can make or break the efficiency of our department. From delayed tray deliveries to last-minute drop-offs, these challenges require a strong partnership with our vendors and a clear framework to guide our actions. 

This discussion of how to navigate the challenges of vendor relationships with the sterile processing department will be addressed in two parts. Here, I will explore the best practices for fostering these relationships in part 1. In part 2 we will explore the importance of having a robust vendor policy to refer back to in times of need. 


Real-World Scenarios: Anticipating the Unexpected

There are two major areas of adversity in the vendor-SPD relationship: delayed tray deliveries and last-minute drop-offs that come with their own challenges: 

Delayed Tray Deliveries:  You're gearing up for a busy day in SPD when you realize that trays for the day's cases haven't arrived. You frantically try to contact the vendor, only to be met with a vague response about shipping delays. In moments like these, having open communication channels with your vendors becomes a lifeline. By promptly informing them of the situation and working together to find a solution, whether it's expediting the delivery or finding alternative sources, you can mitigate the impact on patient care and keep your department and the operating room running smoothly.

Last-Minute Tray Drop-Offs: These situations involve deliveries at the end of a shift when a courier suddenly appears with multiple trays needed for a case in less than 24 hours. The pressure is on to process and sterilize these trays in time, but you know that rushing the process may compromise quality and safety. This is where a clear understanding of your vendor's processes and limitations becomes crucial. By engaging in collaborative problem-solving and prioritizing the processing of these last-minute trays while maintaining standards, you can rise to the challenge and ensure the best possible outcome for the patient. 

These challenges with the vendor can be overcome by building collaborative relationships through communication as outlined below. 


Building Collaborative Vendor Relationships: Communication is Key

There are four critical approaches to communicating with your vendor that will have a significant and positive impact on your relationship and addressing unexpected situations that may arise: 

Open Communication: In my experience, the foundation of any successful vendor relationship is open, transparent communication. By establishing clear lines of communication and regularly touching base through meetings, calls, and emails, you can ensure everyone is on the same page regarding needs, expectations, and limitations. When faced with a delayed tray delivery, for example, having these open channels allows you to quickly inform the vendor and collaborate to find a solution.

Mutual Understanding: We are very focused on our own roles and responsibilities, but taking the time to understand your vendor's processes, products, and services can make an impactful difference. By gaining insight into their workflow, you can better assess how to integrate their offerings into your department's operations. Similarly, educating vendors about your specific requirements, regulations, and constraints helps them tailor their services to meet your needs. This mutual understanding becomes particularly important when dealing with last-minute tray drop-offs, as both parties need to be aware of the time constraints and potential impact on patient care.

Collaborative Problem-Solving: Challenges are inevitable in the SPD. Whether it's a courier mishandling trays or a vendor delivering them at the eleventh hour, these issues require collaborative problem-solving. By sharing expertise, resources, and ideas, you can work together to identify the root cause of the problem and develop effective strategies to address it. This partnership mentality fosters a sense of trust and mutual respect that is essential in navigating real-world issues.

Continuous Improvement: As we strive for excellence in our own work, we should also seek opportunities for improving our vendor relationships. This may involve jointly reviewing processes, identifying areas for optimization, and implementing changes to enhance efficiency, quality, and safety. If delayed deliveries or last-minute drop-offs become a recurring issue, for example, working together to analyze the underlying causes and develop preventive measures can help mitigate future occurrences and strengthen your partnership.


Navigating Challenges with Preferred Vendors 

In some cases, SPD may encounter situations where vendors cannot be easily terminated due to surgeon preferences. To navigate these challenges:

  1. Communicate openly with surgeons to understand their needs and preferences.

  2. Engage in collaborative problem-solving with vendors to address issues and find targeted solutions.

  3. Continuously monitor vendor performance and provide regular feedback to ensure agreed-upon standards are met.

  4. Document any issues or concerns thoroughly to support discussions with surgeons and hospital leadership.

By adapting their approach and focusing on communication, collaboration, monitoring, and documentation, sterile processing professionals can maintain high standards of quality, safety, and efficiency while fostering positive working relationships with all stakeholders, particularly in this instance as a middle person between the vendor and surgeon.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Developing positive relationships with vendors and working collaboratively is extremely important to sterile processing department success, yet often overlooked. However, taking time to work with vendors and establish communication pathways may prove essential in emergencies. Such efforts likely lead to more versatile responses through understanding day-to-day challenges faced by both parties. Vendors should be treated as extensions of sterile processing and surgical teams, not outsiders, and effective communication helps strive for better patient care.

Unfortunately, not every vendor will have the same work ethic or meet halfway in ensuring effective patient care. Part 2 of this article will addresses the importance of a professional framework and establishing expectations and accountability for both parties. Stay tuned!


 If you have comments or questions for Rebecca, you can reach her through Linkedin by visiting her profile here. We'd love to hear your own perspectives and experiences with your vendors in the comments below, or anywhere you find this article on social media. Thanks for reading!


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