Premier's Field Force

Edition: April 2002 - Vol 10 Number 04
Article#: 1201
Author: Repertoire

Dave Edwards isn't afraid to knock on doors. Brought up in the American Hospital Supply culture, he began his healthcare career as a rep for V. Mueller in San Antonio, then moved to

Los Angeles for Pharmaseal, and then to central California for Convertors. He helped launch American's procedure-based delivery system (PBDS) for OR supplies and instruments.

“I still love and revere the American culture,'' he says. “I learned a strong work ethic, teamwork, honesty and entrepreneurship. And one thing I loved about the American Hospital Supply world was that one rep's style could be totally different from another's, and that was totally appropriate. You adapted your style to your geography and the customers you served.''

After a brief stint with Imagyn Medical Technologies, Irvine, CA, a manufacturer of products for oncology and critical care, Edwards was recruited 21/2 years ago by an unlikely suitor – Premier Inc., the national hospital alliance – to help build a field team. “We needed to deploy a group of people in the field who could accomplish two things,'' he says. “First and foremost was customer advocacy,'' with the word “customer'' referring to the hospitals who own Premier and their affiliates, he says. And the flip side was meeting Premier's business partners “in the middle,'' that is, providing value to contract vendors as well as to Premier's owners.

Two-Tiered Approach
At the time, Premier's presence on the street was low-key, says Edwards. SunHealth (who along with American Healthcare Systems and the old Premier, merged to create Premier in the mid-1990s) had about 13 people calling on its members. But that was about it.

To strengthen the bonds between itself and its members, Premier created a two-tiered field structure:
• The relationship management group, currently comprising 23 people, who call primarily on the executive suite in Premier member hospitals and hospital systems. Acting somewhat like a manufacturer's corporate accounts team, the relationship managers represent all of Premier's programs to the hospital executive. In fact, several come from the vendor side of the business. They sit down with the hospital executive team at least annually, review the hospital's strategic plan, and figure out how Premier can help them execute it. Then they call in representatives from the various Premier programs to deliver their offerings.
• The healthcare resource management group (which Edwards directs), call on materials managers and other department heads in the hospital. These 35 people focus on the supply chain component of the hospital's or IDN's plan, talking about new contracts, contract utilization, commitment, supply savings, standardization, etc.

The “S'' Word
Like other GPOs and alliances, Premier walks a delicate line between being a healthcare provider and being a provider of products and services. When the healthcare resource manager knocks on a materials manager's door, he or she has to ask, “Does that materials manager see me as 'paisano,' or friend, or as just another vendor?''
“If we're just another somebody knocking on their door, we dilute our effectiveness,'' says Edwards. “It is our credibility as the hospital's advocate that allows us to be at the table.'' Partly for that reason, Edwards and others in the organization refer to the resource managers as a “field force,'' not a “sales force.'' The 35 resource managers come from varied backgrounds. Some are clinical people, who can offer technical expertise to hospitals; others are materials managers; and still others have manufacturing, distribution, nursing, pharmacy or lab backgrounds.

One of their primary missions is to help hospitals understand Premier's contracts and how to use them effectively. “It's all about optimizing the contracts,'' says Edwards. For example, Premier has glove contracts with multiple manufacturers. “[A hospital] can buy gloves from all of them and get decent pricing,'' he says. But the healthcare resource manager can show that hospital how much more it can save by standardizing on just one, he adds.

The lion's share of a resource manager's paycheck is straight salary, but he or she can earn a supplementary bonus based on customer satisfaction and sales growth. Next year, Premier hopes to shift that second incentive away from sales growth to customer savings. In other words, the greater the documented savings for the hospital, the greater the bonus for the resource manager. In this way, Premier hopes to solidify the bond and align the incentives between resource managers and the alliance's members.

A Lot to Juggle
Premier's resource managers, like those of major med/surg distributors, can succeed or fail based on their time management skills. With a portfolio of 750 contracts in multiple areas (e.g., dietary, med/surg, pharmacy, lab, etc.), approximately 500 business partners (vendors), more than 1,500 hospitals, and up to 10 departments to call on in each, the resource manager's task can be overwhelming, says Edwards. “We can be talking about green beans with one person, then walking [the hospital] through a stent grid, then running downstairs and talking about a million-dollar chemistry analyzer system.''

Some hospitals are relatively self-sufficient, and don't care to see a Premier rep very often, says Edwards. Perhaps they simply want to be kept abreast of new contracts or new services. But others demand more. “They want us intimately involved in their operation,'' says Edwards. For example, they may want the Premier rep to sit in on every value analysis team meeting.

How do the resource managers keep track? “We try to be very disciplined,'' says Edwards. To meet the growing demand, he hopes to hire more resource managers soon. And he would like to see the resource managers take on a new role with their customers – that of supply chain consulting. For example, they could help the hospital evaluate whether it would benefit from a just-in-time delivery system. “Premier has many resources and rich backgrounds. That's where we want to go.''