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How Atrium Health has gotten results with a focus on data and key partnerships amid a pandemic

Published in: The Journal of Healthcare Contracting

During a difficult period for the healthcare industry, Atrium Health, an integrated, nonprofit health system serving the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama, was able to turn those obstacles into fuel for productivity and efficiency. Indeed, as a healthcare organization, Atrium Health experienced all the turbulence and challenges that everyone else felt during the pandemic. Yet even with these challenges, Atrium Health continues to leverage innovation to improve productivity and patient care throughout its 40 hospitals and 1,400 care locations.

Atrium Health was recently awarded the 2021 Richard A. Norling Premier Alliance Excellence Award, which recognizes healthcare providers that are trusted partners and valued contributors to their local communities and other Premier, Inc. member health systems. Atrium Health was selected from Premier’s nationwide alliance of more than 4,400 U.S. hospitals and health systems and approximately 225,000 other providers and organizations.

This isn’t the first time Atrium Health has been recognized for its innovation. The American Hospital Association awarded Atrium Health the 2019 Quest for Quality Prize, which recognizes leadership and innovation to advance health care quality and health in communities, and the 2021 Carolyn Boone Lewis Equity of Care Award, for advancing equity of care to all patients, spreading lessons learned and progress toward diversity, inclusion and health equity. Atrium Health was also the recipient of the prestigious 2020 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Health Equity Award for its efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in care.

Improving resiliency through data-driven benchmarks

Atrium Health partners with Premier to guide better healthcare outcomes regionally and nationally. By using data-driven benchmarks, Atrium Health has a better understanding of the flow of materials, the flow of spend, and the improvements they have made within its own organization. The health system’s ability to monitor internally and externally allows further insight into what it is already accomplishing and what work can be improved.

Atrium Health utilizes a variety of tools and systems to procure data-driven benchmarks as a part of its partnership with its GPO, including Premier’s data and technology, collaboratives and supply chain services in its delivery of high-quality, cost-effective care. Over the last five years, Atrium Health has achieved more than $100 million in supply chain savings and $140 million in clinical optimization savings, leveraging PINC AI®, Premier’s cloud-based performance improvement platform.

“Being able to partner with Premier and Premier’s membership to develop different resiliency strategies, such as domestic sourcing and other risk mitigation strategies, has been critical to our success,” said Conrad Emmerich, Senior vice president and chief procurement Officer of Atrium Health. “It has been transparent about the availability of raw materials, and it has leveraged partnerships with other industry leaders from a manufacturing side to help production. I look at the resiliency within the global supply chain that Premier has highlighted, and it has helped us provide supplies and critical PPE to our caregivers.”

Like every other health system, Atrium Health had to scramble to make sure there was enough PPE for its employees in 2020. By using the available data, Atrium Health and Premier devised and implemented a resiliency strategy that enabled them to meet the needs of the organization.

In the wake of pandemic, Atrium Health remains focused on maintaining a four-step resiliency plan:

  • Identifying and diversifying stock sources
  • Creating more transparency within the organization
  • Creating a stockpile
  • Reducing the health system’s overall risk

With a plan like this in place, Atrium Health hopes to be in a better place moving forward, pandemic or not, Emmerich said.

“Having production and factories overseas helped Premier and our members ramp up supply and get qualified sources for critical product categories,” said Andy Brailo, chief customer officer at Premier. “We also decided to take it a step further, reaffirming our goal to diversify country of origin and manufacturing. Our philosophy is simple: ‘Never again.’ While we don’t want to lift our entire production from a foreign country and shift it to domestic, we do want to make sure that we have a degree of accessible backstock capacity.”

Over the last year and a half, Brailo said that necessity became the mother of innovation. Premier continues to use data and innovation to drive and inform decisions on projects. Early in the pandemic, Premier and its members made investments in Prestige Ameritech for the production of masks, as well as the launch of a project with DeRoyal Industries where they will be utilizing one of the highest automated manufacturing processes for gown manufacturing. Recently, the GPO entered into a partnership with Honeywell to start a large-scale exam glove production in the United States.

In fact, a large part of Premier’s innovation during the pandemic came together while teams were working remotely, Brailo said. “We built out, in rapid succession, some tools that combined the publicly available and our supply chain data that could forecast for COVID surges,” he said. “People could look at the data and trends and plan appropriately.”

Improving efficiency

While COVID-19 certainly introduced a number of challenges to the healthcare industry, it also created an environment where collaboration was a necessity. Emmerich explained that his team at Atrium had “no choice but to be more transparent with our GPO and our fellow GPO members and colleagues,” because it was the only way anyone was going to make it to the other side. “There was a lot of collaboration with people and organizations coming together to be able to share a product and make connections,” he said. This allowed his team to see how others were conserving their stock and provide perspective on what the industry is going through.

Collaboration is the key to working through any crisis. Not only are you able to provide a valuable perspective about the situation with a group that is going through the same thing, but it also provides you an opportunity to work together to find a solution. Even if the solution doesn’t address the greater crisis, you can formulate strategies to accomplish smaller goals until the crisis passes. Atrium Health and Premier were able to partner and collaborate with each other and other health systems to provide a solution to one of the bigger challenges of COVID-19: PPE sourcing.

For example, Atrium Health was able to collaborate with a large retail chain to secure industrial N99 and N95 respirators, a literal pot of gold in a pandemic. The company pulled all its stock off the shelves and wanted to donate it to the healthcare community. Having no experience with partnering with a health system, they wanted to work with a couple of larger organizations so that greater needs were being met in their community. Ultimately, the company donated several million industrial N99 and N95 masks to Premier, which allocated them to Atrium Health and other partners. “That type of rapid deployment of product would not have occurred without the collaboration we have with Atrium Health,” Brailo said.

Innovation in supply chain savings

Finding ways to improve efficiencies and savings in its supply chain is another way that Atrium Health is driving results. “I think anytime that we can create savings and efficiencies at Atrium Health brings value,” Emmerich said. “Being able to lower the cost of care and provide care to the people in the communities that we have represented is extremely important. That’s part of our calling and mission at Atrium Health.”

High-quality, low-cost care allows the system to reinvest within the organization to provide new technology and new equipment. This allows organizations like Atrium Health to expand its reach from the brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities to the communities that the health system serves on a daily basis. Atrium Health’s ability to manage and control costs directly impacts growth and quality of care.

Premier and Atrium Health are even looking for ways to improve efficiencies and savings with labor shortages, yet another challenge brought on by COVID-19. “The savings that we are generating has to be reinvested into the care, which can mean finding more clinical staff,” Brailo said. “One of the philosophies we all share is we never forget that, whether it’s $75,000 or a couple million dollars in savings, it can help to bring on new nurses or bring in an analyst who can help us track quality improvements. We are focused on going after large savings together with Atrium Health.”

Whether it is looking to improve supply chain resiliency, drive efficiency, or improve supply chain savings, Atrium Health is an organization that is taking careful steps for improvement. What makes Atrium Health successful in unprecedented times is its ability to pivot and create new strategies that are designed to benefit partners, employees, and patients.

“In my mind, when we say savings, it’s really the ability for us to reinvest into improving health, elevating hope and advancing healing – for all, every day,” Emmerich explained.

This article ran in the Journal of Healthcare Contracting in the October 2021 issue.

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