Love Thy Vendor?

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Providers and IT suppliers don't get along, right? You can build a partnership of trust with your vendor--and actually get what you pay for. Here's how.

Underperforming technology is a topic that Brian Dixon knows well. As health IT manager at the Indianapolis-based Regenstrief Institute, Dixon is one of several managers who monitors a $216 million grant portfolio on behalf of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality National Resource Center for Health IT. With some 75 projects under way, Dixon has seen firsthand how inadequate software or flawed devices can bring innovation to a halt. In one AHRQ-supported telemedicine project, for instance, nearly one-third of the patient participants dropped out due to difficulties using home-reporting technology. Such problems can be averted, Dixon says--if healthcare providers and technology vendors learn to work together. "The provider-vendor relationship is critical," he says.

The "working together" part, of course, is the problem. Dixon says the two sides are doing a mediocre job of realizing their potential. "I'd give the industry a C. It is performing adequately but could do a lot more. You need a partnership, not just a contractual relationship."

Many healthcare executives, no doubt, would give provider-vendor relationships a similar grade--if not worse. Technology vendors and their healthcare customers may not be appearing on The Jerry Springer Show, but their often stormy relationships are well-documented. Ask any hospital chief information officer who has experienced network downtime when software applications fail, throwing the entire network into disarray. Or talk to a medical group executive who bought an electronic medical record package, only to find that promised features fell far short of expectations. The healthcare industry is looking to IT to help deliver it to the promised land of improved communications and patient safety, but the industry's dirty little secret is that many an IT deployment has derailed, coming in late, over budget or not at all-leaving many a fractured provider-vendor relationship as a result.

Following are four lessons learned from healthcare organizations that have found a way to sidestep the shouting match with their IT suppliers. They have moved beyond contractual agreements--although those still play a significant role--to develop solid working relationships with hardware and software companies. For these leaders, a successful vendor relationship begins before the product search even begins. The effort, they say, needs to continue well into the deployment--even years after go-live. Picking the right partner, establishing deployment accountabilities, and keeping the lines of communication open thereafter are all part of the mix.

1. Get your own house in order

Like many healthcare organizations looking to embed IT into their operations, Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, WV, needed a little hand-holding from its software supplier. Early in 2006, the 260-staffed-bed community hospital began its search for a picture-archiving and communication systems vendor, one that could also supply a radiology information system and computed radiography technology. "We had little to no experience in PACs, RIS, or CR," recalls Bill Lucas, the PACs administrator who led the vendor search. "We needed a vendor we could trust that could help us down the path."

In July 2006, after a six-month search, Thomas Memorial settled on Agfa, awarding the vendor a multimillion dollar, five-year contract. Thomas' selection team, which included representatives from IT and radiology, considered half a dozen vendors, Siemens Medical Solutions and GE Healthcare among them. These are large, well-known vendors with big footprints in the industry. Before it tackled its vendor evaluation, the hospital got its own act together, studying the potential of PACs and figuring out how it wanted to adapt the complex technology to its own workflow. This pre-search work, Lucas says, paid off. "If you don't have much experience, do what you can to educate yourself," he advises. "Otherwise you will get stuck and go where the vendor takes you, or end up confusing the vendor. If vendors don't understand how your department functions, you will not get what you want."

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