Backorders and How to Avoid Them

Kathleen Quellen, RN, BSN / April 2017

Most hospitals have had to wrestle with the issue of backorders at some point. The end users (usually nurses) have to deal with the consequences. But I’ll ask you a question: What if you could do something today, right now, to help prevent such things from happening in your unit? There are things you can do, and I’m here to share them with you.

How backorders can happen

In order to address budget priorities, healthcare facilities sometimes order JIT (Just in Time). By ordering JIT, the hospital has a lower inventory, but a more available cash flow. Unfortunately, that also increases the risk of backorders and the challenges backorders can present.

This is compounded by the occasional manufacturer backorder.  If a traditionally JIT-ordered item encounters manufacturer backorder timelines, the issue becomes more complex. Now the hospital does not have backup products on hand, and it is unable to acquire them quickly to fill the gap. That means clinicians are in a scramble.

So how can a unit do its best to manage backorders and mitigate resulting issues?  Read on for three ideas!

Taking control of your inventory system

  1. Assign a charge nurse or unit secretary to monitor supply room/carts daily. Nothing is better than being proactive and having a hands-on approach to your supply room for monitoring inventory. This is your easiest front-line way to avoid backorders.  Other ideas for monitoring supply levels:
  • If you don’t have an automatic reorder notification system, ask management if they can review options and install one. This takes the guesswork out of ordering.
  • Review your inventory level reports. This can be done by whoever is assigned to monitor supplies and they can be run daily, weekly, or monthly.
  1. Give your SPD/Materials Management Purchasing Team information. Nothing is more frustrating to nurses than finding shelves empty of needed products, then calling SPD/Materials or Purchasing and finding out that that the product is on backorder. To avoid this, make sure that your Purchasing team has current and accurate information when product supplies are getting low, and that the person assigned for monitoring supply levels is communicating with the team.  You should also verify that your Purchasing Department communicates back to your contact or unit when they place an order.
  1. Create a backup plan. Every unit understands the value of “squirreling” things away. This is when valued products prone to backorder are stored in a unit manager’s office under lock and key for “just in case.” Just be careful with this backup storage plan, however. It can be effective if it’s organized, but it may fall prey to the traditional problem real squirrels face: after burying hundreds of nuts each year, they forget where most of them are!

You can also prioritize items that are essential to the unit or that are known to go on backorder.  Once you prioritize items which are essential to the unit, find out who your manufacturer is and identify the local representative from that company.  Having an old fashioned Rolodex of local representative names and numbers can be helpful in a backorder situation.  No representative wants to lose a sale or have an unhappy customer.  Sometimes by reaching out to them directly the problem can be solved, a substitution can be offered, or you will at least know what the issue is.  This is where good service comes in; when evaluating vendors, verify they have the bandwidth to support you with service and training as needed for the long-term.

While all hospital supply vendors do their best to avoid backorders, it is sometimes unavoidable as they are related to third party suppliers going on backorder themselves.  When this happens, a vendor cannot do much but look for other suppliers, offer substitutes, or wait until their supplier goes off backorder.

That is why I advocate for someone on the nursing unit to implement best practices for supply ordering/monitoring.  Backorders always create challenges for vendors, hospitals, and the end users.  But with added planning and communication, you can change the outcome.  Most importantly, by not relying completely on other departments to fill your supply rooms and taking control of your unit’s needed inventory, many of the complications from backorders can be avoided.

How does your unit handle backorder management? Tell us in the comments below!

About the Author

Kathy Quellen, RN, BSN, has been a NICU/PICU RN since 1981. She has worked in hospitals all over the U.S., including Georgetown University Hospital, DC Children’s, Cedars Sinai and Children’s Hospital of NJ.  She worked as a Clinical Specialist for Abbott Labs/Hospira and has been a NICU Clinical Specialist for Medela since 2014. She covers hospitals all throughout the western United States.