Bridging the gap between health sector supply chain research and practice

The annual research dissemination conference of the W. P. Carey School’s Health Sector Supply Chain Research Consortium is designed to bring practitioners and researchers together to talk about new knowledge and practical issue. The journals edited at the W. P. Carey School can also be a source of game-changing new ideas.

It’s a Catch-22: Practitioners in the healthcare supply chain — hospital administrators, medical product manufacturers, distributors — are typically too busy, and too focused on practice, to pay much attention to the research being done by academics. On the other hand, research is the fundamental building block of practice.

So how can the gap between the two be bridged?

That’s part of the purpose behind the annual research dissemination conference of the Health Sector Supply Chain Research Consortium, a research group within the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Getting to those overbusy, hyper-focused practitioners requires marrying theory and practice — making theoretical research interesting and accessible for practitioners, explained Craig Carter, professor of Supply Chain Management at the W. P. Carey School and co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Supply Chain Management.

“I want this journal to be useful to practitioners, not just other academics,” was a sentiment echoed by W. P. Carey School of Business faculty members who edit some of the leading health sector supply chain-related journals. The editors shared with the audience of practitioners an overview of the kinds of research being published, and the practical implications of that research — the ways that the journals are marrying theory and practice.

The Journal of Operations Management

Co-Editor-in-Chief Tom Choi, who is also a professor of Supply Chain Management at the W. P. Carey School, explained some of the most popular papers the Journal of Operations Management  has published recently:

  • Lean principles and service capacity: Written by a mental healthcare practitioner, this paper is based on an action research approach (where the researcher intervenes in the process). Here, the author applied lean principles to improve the outpatient claims process and then studied how that affected service capacity (patient admittance).
  • Focus as narrowing vs. focus as emphasis: In manufacturing, efficiency is typically maximized when the factory focuses its production, so most factories narrow their scope to just one or a small number of like products. In healthcare, in contrast, focus typically implies emphasis — the hospital known for cancer treatment still provides other healthcare services, even though its focus is on cancer treatment. What are the implications of emphasis on practice?
  • Swift flow vs. even flow in IT implementation: When implementing new information technology (IT) in a healthcare setting, is it better to focus on speed (swift flow) or structure (even flow)? Financial performance is typically maximized when the focus is on swift flow, but quality of care is maximized when the focus is on even flow.
  • Government-mandated IT adoption: What happens when the government forces hospitals to implement new information technology? Considering government pressure to adopt IT across three tiers of the healthcare supply chain — manufacturing, distribution and hospitals — researchers did find differences in the responses, and implications, in each case.

Journal of Supply Chain Management

Co-Editor-in-Chief Craig Carter, who is also a professor of Supply Chain Management at the W. P. Carey School, explained a few of the research trends and topics the Journal of Supply Chain Management focuses on:

  • Sustainability: Thinking about sustainability is a business imperative in the 21st century, Carter said. “We’re used to thinking about economic and environmental trade-offs; what about environmental and social trade-offs?”
  • Social network analysis: “Say I’m doing a sustainable supply chain project. How do I try to get you to engage?” Carter asked. “Is it only by reaching out to you to gain your influence? In reality that’s not how it works — I reach out to you and to others. You might become evangelized and reach out to others as well.”
  • Traceability and risk: “We’re looking at unraveling the food supply chain, including by getting strategic insights from China,” Carter explained. For example, one study looks at the countries of origin in a Nutri-Grain Bar — there are eight. “If there is a problem with Nutri-Grain Bars, how do we isolate the problem and then find the supplier when there are eight different countries of origin?”

IIE Transactions of Healthcare Systems Engineering

Editor-in-Chief John Fowler, who is also the chairman of the Department of Supply Chain Management at the W. P. Carey School, explained the categories of research the IIE Transactions of Healthcare Systems Engineering publishes, and the types of questions he looks for the research to answer:

  • Healthcare operations management: What is the best strategy to schedule outpatient appointments? When should the emergency department go on diversion? What levels of medical supplies are needed?
  • Socio-technical systems analysis: How do we make the physician-patient encounter as efficient and effective as possible? How should a survey for patients and their families be designed?
  • Healthcare informatics and quality engineering: What are the healthcare industry-specific techniques I can use to get information out of my data? How can control charts be designed better to allow practitioners to see, for example, if there is an outbreak of influenza?
  • Medical decision making: What is the optimal timing for the treatment of patients with chronic disease — for example, when is the best time for a liver transplant? How much screening should be done; is an annual Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test necessary?
  • Healthcare public policy: What sort of global healthcare public policies should we be considering? How should limited resources be allocated to control infectious diseases? Should schools close if there is an outbreak of the flu?

Researcher-to-practitioner information transfer

Part of the gap that exists between research and practice is a communication gap. Scholarly research — the kind that puts forth and then tests a theory — is an important part of how practitioners can maximize the efficacy, and efficiency, of healthcare, but most practitioners don’t read or even skim the scholarly journals that publish those kinds of theory-testing studies.

So important to bridging the gap between research and practice is to transfer knowledge in ways that make sense for practitioners. “How do we, as academics, relay the information to practitioners, who aren’t reading our journals?” asked Craig Carter. The answer, he said, is through a number of vehicles, including short summaries given to healthcare associations for dissemination to members as well as textbooks and materials used in professional certification courses.

Practitioners to researchers: Make it short, compelling and practical

Bridging the gap between research and practice is a two-way street. While researchers are obligated to create value for practitioners, practitioners are obligated to communicate how researchers can do that, said discussion moderator Phil Carter, professor of Supply Chain Management and Executive Director of CAPS Research. The audience — a group of about 40 executive-level healthcare practitioners — offered their advice:

  • Make it short: “In this day and age people won’t read the full paper, but a 500-word summary that links to the paper or the article would be great,” explained one practitioner. Another encouraged the researchers to “find ways to use technology to feed us the information.” Many practitioners commented that social networking — LinkedIn, in particular — can be a very effective channel for disseminating information.
  • Make it compelling: Instead of research-oriented titles like “Theory of Implementation of Lean Principles in a Hospital Environment,” more compelling titles like “Best Practices in the Implementation of Lean in the Hospital” were more likely to catch practitioners’ attention and compel them to read. Titles with references to how the theory has been applied in the real world are also effective; “Then I’ll take the time to at least read the introduction and conclusion,” said one practitioner.
  • Make it practical: Practitioners agreed that marrying theories with their practical implications is critical. Beyond that, they said, they want to see “unsterilized” stories of challenges that other practitioners faced and how they overcame those challenges.

Bridging the gap between research and practice is critical, and it’s possible when theory and practice are married, when theoretical research is interesting and accessible for practitioners. Editors of the three health sector supply chain research-related journals edited at the W. P. Carey School — IIE Transactions of Healthcare Systems Engineering, the Journal of Operations Management and the Journal of Supply Chain Management — work hard to do just that.