Hospital logistics - guarantor of quality and efficiency

Medical supply distribution, supplying operating rooms with sterile instrument kits, the provision of food and catering services for patients – these are some of the around-the-clock care processes at a hospital. Efficient logistics are crucial to guarantee smooth processes. All of these pieces ultimately come together at the hospital’s in-house logistics center. Many factors affect the planning and organization of this type of facility.

D. Eng. Sebastian Wibbeling
D. Eng. Sebastian Wibbeling, Head of Health Care Logistics, Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML)

In this interview with, D. Eng. Sebastian Wibbeling talks about the different areas of a hospital's in-house logistics center and explains how hospitals can benefit from efficient logistics.

Dr. Wibbeling, what departments are a part of a hospital's logistics center?

D. Eng. Sebastian Wibbeling: That's actually not quite so easy to define and specify. For example, material flow is divided into several sections, which also includes the warehousing of medical and pharmaceutical supplies. This can also involve a pharmacy. And then there is food service in coordination with the hospital kitchen and the sterile processing department or central supply. These are all areas that can be part of a logistics center. If this facility is located on the hospital’s premises, healthcare waste management can also play a role. Having said that, the warehouse and the pharmacy are often the core of a hospital's in-house logistics center.

How do good or bad logistics impact the hospital and the hospital workflows?

Wibbeling: Logistics have a fundamental impact! Logistics are virtually a hospital's most important supportive discipline. All of the areas responsible for supply chain management – we also call them service areas – have to get their items to the hospital's respective wards and departments. And if those items don't arrive right on time, it not only results in major process delays but also reduces hospital efficiency. Surgical procedures cannot take place and must be postponed. Ultimately, this affects the patients who cannot be promptly treated. One area that doesn’t play a role in patient treatment but that's obviously also important to the quality of a hospital is food service. Inefficient logistics in this sector are also quickly noticed and felt by patients.

good logistics
The quality and efficiency of a hospital depends on good logistics. Smooth processes play a major role here.

How do digital solutions play a role in this setting?

Wibbeling: Digital solutions are very common in all areas of logistics. Although the different areas are individually organized, they are connected through interfaces. For example, there is a food ordering and management system and a warehouse and pharmaceutical ordering system. Of course, the sterile processing department also works with software. In addition, there are logistics support systems such as medical supply distribution or patient transport that are not directly handled by logistic centers but that are partially also the responsibility of the logistics department.

What needs to be considered when it comes to the storage of medical devices?

Wibbeling: First, you have to differentiate between pharmaceutical products, that being prescription only medicine and medical devices. The latter has fewer demands on room design quality. These include dust-free conditions and temperature regulation. At the moment, the requirements in Germany are still quite low, unless the outer packaging has been torn. That’s when you enter the field of piece picking, which subsequently makes greater demands on ventilation technology. Due to drug safety concerns, there are yet still very different requirements in the pharmacy setting, for example, when it comes to medications that require refrigeration and maintenance at a certain temperature range. Oftentimes, it is essential to ensure a quick delivery. However, at this point, seamless tracking is not yet a requirement in this case.

What are the challenges of designing an in-house logistics center?

Wibbeling: On the whole, the system must meet the requirements. The logistics technology needs to suit the supply spectrum, the required quantities, and the number of orders. The delivery and distribution processes in the individual hospitals can likewise be very different in terms of their organization. Some hospitals feature a direct, perhaps even subterranean connection via a tunnel system. Other hospitals supply with trucks. All of these components have to be considered on an individual basis and included in the warehouse design. In certain areas, it might make sense to use automated technology such as driverless transport systems or fully automated dispensing systems for example.

automated technology
Today's hospital logistics work increasingly with automated technology such as driverless transport systems or fully automatic dispensers. Logistics will continue to become more and more digital in the future.

What do hospitals have to keep in mind when they design or build a logistics center?

Wibbeling: There are many logistics centers or hospital warehouses that are located on the outer edges of the property and some might not be suitable to facilitate logistics. The actual building often is the problem, if it has low ceilings, long routes or an awkward building design for example. If you subsequently have the chance to build a new logistics center, all of these problems can be addressed and eliminated. The ultimate goal is to ensure efficient operations. At this stage, hospitals should also decide whether the logistics center should be operated in-house or in an external or collaborative environment.

Where do you see the future of hospital logistics?

Wibbeling: Hospital logistics will become increasingly digital. In the future, we might see supply chains that are monitored in increasing and better ways. Today, logistical processes are often already digitally supported and frequently by way of mobile devices. That's simply because technologies are getting cheaper and are more readily available and accessible. Having said that, there is a major challenge as it pertains to the interfaces between the different systems. There is still a lot of unrealized potential in this area.

The interview was conducted by Elena Blume and translated from German by Elena O'Meara.