According to a recent Pitney Bowes survey, hospital executives think a lot more about what goes out of — and also into — their facilities these days.
Roughly 9 in 10 respondents said that establishing processes to support efficient and effective shipping and receiving was a major organizational concern. And those concerns will likely stick, given that 53% of respondents said they expected shipment-related activities to increase in the years ahead.
Despite all that attention, increased volumes coming in can potentially and insidiously inflate privacy risks. While hospitals dedicate enormous resources toward protecting sensitive information, those investments tend to focus on digital systems and infrastructure over the inbound movement of printed materials.
And those oversights are cause for concern. According to the same survey, about 1 in 2 healthcare executives said that ensuring HIPAA compliance was very or extremely challenging regarding shipping and receiving activities. In response to compliance needs, hospitals have an opportunity to advance their approach to inbound chain of custody.
A strong and data-supported chain of custody provides visibility into who touches sensitive materials from origin to destination. Put simply, it ensures that the right information gets to the right person — and eventually gets seen by that person and that person alone.
So how do you build and maintain an inbound chain of custody at a busy hospital with competing priorities? Here’s what one Pitney Bowes expert suggests:
1. Create an inbound chain of custody policy
Not all healthcare organizations have a formal chain of custody policy, but if they don’t, now is the time to consider writing one, especially given the current compliance environment, suggested Sean Kane, Director, Channel Strategy at Pitney Bowes.
“There should be some kind of policy that reinforces a desired and repeatable process starting from the receiving dock when shipments arrive at the facility,” he said. “Ideally, that policy establishes the chain of custody that should be followed during each handoff step as items move from arrival to destination. It also designates supervisory teams and relationships, as well as the technologies to use along the way.”
2. Consolidate receiving activities
Strong policies need strong processes, which is why a consolidated approach to inbound shipments is key, Kane added. With a single team managing and enforcing that standardized policy, facilities are more likely to keep tighter control of their inbound chain of custody.
“There needs to be executive oversight and a team to operationalize receiving,” Kane said. “This underlying infrastructure helps eliminate redundancies and confusion. By consolidating into a consistent and centralized receiving function, you’re reducing the risks that could occur when departments create their own ways of doing things.”
3. Optimize technology and tools
With labor shortages, many hospitals struggle to make workflows work with existing resources — including receiving activities at the loading dock and beyond. Kane suggested they lean more on technology and tools, which, besides automating tasks, can minimize the risk of human error.
“A manual process where staff dispositions items with paper logs isn’t practical with the number of shipments coming into hospitals,” he said. “That’s where a software application can make an impact, especially when it’s built into the chain of custody policy so that it’s used all the time.”
Bar code scanners are one such tool. Using a hand-held smartphone like device, staff can scan the carrier bar code on an item as soon as it arrives on a pallet. From there, the bar code is scanned along its journey to the recipient as a trackable record of every custodial handoff.
4. Consider smart lockers
Hospitals are not 9-to-5 facilities. A package arriving in the morning may not be in the hands of the intended recipient until they clock in for their midnight shift, for example. In addition, sometimes nonshipped materials require safekeeping, too — such as patients’ personal effects — which can further complicate inbound chain of custody.
Smart lockers have become critical in hospital environments to address these and other diverse demands while still maintaining chain of custody, Kane said.
“Lockers are helping to alleviate staff from having to maintain control over those items, such as a nurse storing a patient’s things while they’re in surgery,” he said. “With smart lockers, you can bag those items up, put a bar code on, scan it into the system and have the confidence in knowing they’ll stay safe.”
Maintaining compliance across touch points
Hospitals need a more resilient chain of custody process that protects sensitive information without overwhelming staff or available resources. Here’s what can help: a codified policy, centralized approach, efficient technology and ancillary support, such as smart lockers. With these strategies in place, healthcare stakeholders can more adequately prepare for inbound activities and keep custodial chains secure, even as expected shipment volumes increase.