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Cybersecurity and Medical Equipment Inventory Management: A Case for Symbiosis

Hospitals have an average of 15 to 20 devices per bed, which means even a comparatively small 100-bed hospital is home to thousands of medical devices, most of which are connected to the hospital network. The proliferation of these connected devices calls for a comprehensive cybersecurity plan to protect the ever-growing inventory of connected devices.

Each connected device added to inventory is a potential point of forced entry into a hospital’s network if not monitored closely and managed accordingly. Luckily, the needs for cybersecurity and medical equipment inventory management dovetail. A good cybersecurity solution can grant a simultaneously granular and panoramic vantage point from which to view, assess, and manage all the digitally-connected aspects of your operation.

The Importance of Inventory Management

The way a business monitors and manages its inventory can be the difference between profitability and failure. The success of Walmart, for example, can be largely traced to its superior inventory management strategy and the execution of that strategy. Walmart’s business model is predicated on crazy thin profit margins (just 1.3% at the time of this article’s writing) making for consistently lower pricing, larger market share, and greater total revenue.

The thing is if inventory isn’t managed meticulously, with incredible efficiency, such slim profit margins can easily slip into losses – which at the scales involved can quickly sink the business.

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Walmart's inventory management process is so exact in fact that the company can easily track the movement of goods across the entire supply chain and map each item to a data-driven demand-satisfaction imperative. The whole thing only works if everything moves like clockwork, complete visibility is achieved, and rapid response capabilities are put in place. It is an incredibly unforgiving business model that leaves practically no room for error. And yet, Walmart’s made it work – so much so that in just 57 years, the company has become the world's largest company by revenue and the largest private employer in the world!

Walmart is just one example of how essential inventory management can be to the success of an organization. In the healthcare industry, for example, inventory management is just as much about patient care as it is about profitability. In fact, there’s a straight line between smart inventory management and strong operational resilience. As a critical infrastructure point, resiliency is of outsized importance for hospitals – which need to ensure the availability and continuity of their services and assets at all times.

Suppose a patient needs a vancomycin injection, but the medication can’t be found or is out-of-stock. You can administer a different antibiotic, but maybe it’s much more expensive, or maybe it needs to be delivered over a longer period of time – eating up more hospital resources and lowering patient throughput. Or worse still, maybe the infection is resistant to other antibiotics.

Now suppose a patient presents with stomach pains. The symptoms and visible signs exhibited are indeterminate and the patient is referred for further examination to the gastroenterology department. Suppose hospital staff can’t manage to locate a portable ultrasound machine anywhere in the wing. Diagnosis is delayed, treatment is delayed, inefficiencies increase, costs grow. The best-case scenario is that you waste some of the patient’s and your staff’s time. The worst-case scenario is, well, a lot worse.  

The fact is that healthcare organizations can’t do very much without the aid of medications and medical devices. Keeping track of managing those inventories is highly complex and highly consequential – increasingly so as your operation grows.

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So maintaining a thorough and accurate medical equipment inventory is critical. When it comes to medical devices, good inventory management can boost operational efficiencies in more ways than you might expect. These include:

  • Optimized utilization: Hospitals depend on medical equipment being in the right place at the right time. If every medical process and procedure needed to wait for equipment to be chased down, the whole system would slow to a crawl. Alternatively, if no medical process or procedure ever needs to wait for equipment to free up or be chased down, the increased operational efficiencies and savings would be significant. This is especially true when it comes to removing bottlenecks around your highest ROA activities (like MRI scans). And that type of functionality is exactly what smart inventory management delivers.
  • Smoother, easier procurement planning: A data feed updated in real-time with information from manufacturers or regulators about medical devices requiring recall – automatically cross-referenced against devices in use – will help pre-empt problems. When decisions need making, there’s no reason for them to be reduced to guess work. Knowing exactly what you have now and how it matches up with what you need is key to planning for the future. By keeping an accurate and detailed inventory of your devices, you’ll be able to plan procurement more proactively – plugging device data into predictive models that allow you greater foresight and flexibility to plan upgrades, replacements, and inventory expansions more intelligently and with greater convenience.
  • Reduced “shrinkage”: Practically every organization is affected by inventory shrinkage, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be accepted as an unalterable cost of doing business. While you’re unlikely to ever completely eliminate shrinkage, it can be partially controlled and significantly reduced. Good inventory management removes the potential for many clerical errors that might result in devices going missing, forces unscrupulous insiders to think twice before equipment is “misappropriated” (a problem more common than you might imagine), and keeps tabs on damaged or decommissioned devices that might otherwise exit circulation without proper record. All this means that your inventory stays more intact for longer – allowing you to get as much operational bang for your equipment buck as possible

Shockingly, most hospitals still rely on manual data entry to keep their medical equipment inventory up-to-date. As more devices enter the ecosystem and costs continue to rise, it is simply inefficient to manage inventory this way. What’s more, human error means inaccuracies plague medical equipment inventory lists. In other words, when it comes to inventory management, most hospitals can use some help. Some are getting it from an unlikely place.

The Cybersecurity Factor

As the number of connected medical devices grows, so too does the risk of cyberattack. Cybersecurity, always an important consideration, is now a key component of hospital strategic planning. Without an effective cybersecurity plan and the tools to execute it, hospitals are putting patient safety at risk and gambling with their organizational success.

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Every connected device added to a hospital’s network could be a vulnerability for a hacker to exploit. All an attacker would have to do is identify a device with out-of-date software or a weak password and they could soon gain access to the hospital’s entire network. When there are thousands of devices to track, the odds that at least some of them are vulnerable is relatively high.

Data breaches are a serious issue for any organization, but for hospitals a compromised network is a catastrophic failure. Sensitive patient data can be stolen, opening the organization to lawsuits and regulatory repercussions. The reputation damage associated with a cyberattack can cost a hospital future business. Worst of all, patient lives could be lost if critical infrastructure goes offline due to a cyberattack. The extreme nature of the consequences means cybersecurity is of the utmost importance in the modern hospital, and it all begins with medical equipment inventory management.

To combat these threats, one must first know the exact number of devices connected to the hospital network as well their operational statuses. That's why a good cybersecurity solution — deployed within a well-configured IT architecture — will automatically identify, locate, and classify all connected devices in real-time. Relying less on human data entry, this system is decidedly less error prone and, in most cases, more accurate than conventional medical equipment inventory management systems.

A Case for Symbiosis

With an accurate and live window into a hospital's connected devices, administrators are better equipped to spot vulnerabilities and looming threats. A dynamic medical equipment inventory, automatically updated as more connected devices are introduced, also improves the IT team's ability to perform maintenance proactively and identify devices in need of patching and updates.

Of course, unless all the devices used in your hospital are networked, it’s not recommended that you totally replace your current inventory system with a cybersecurity solution. But it is a great way to validate, improve, and help maintain your existing inventory records — especially as it pertains to your higher value assets.

The added inventory visibility can also be leveraged to give you asset utilization insights to more intelligently plan capital expenditures and manage the technology procurement process – improving operational resilience at the same time. What’s more, this comes at essentially no cost as the solution is already needed for other critical business purposes — streamlining and enhancing your inventory management process as a totally ancillary benefit.

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A Recipe for Success

As a practical matter, good healthcare cybersecurity needs to start by taking a very accurate accounting of connected asset inventory. Leading cybersecurity providers intelligently build this functionality into their solutions. As such, for your organization, this will either be an example of where you’re doing double work, or where you work synergistically between departments and organizational objectives to reduce the total expenditure of time and energy.

While cybersecurity and inventory management might seem totally unrelated at first glance, the fact is that they can and should go hand-in-hand. They’re natural partners. The ability to identify, locate, and classify connected devices is an indispensable aspect of modern hospital cybersecurity. Better yet, cybersecurity solutions reduce human error and ensure that inventory lists are more accurate than manually captured data. In other words, a good cybersecurity solution can easily be enlisted to pull double duty enhancing your inventory management efforts.

Pairing cybersecurity and inventory management tools enables IT personnel and administrators alike to be more proactive and agile – aligning their focus and planning around safer, smarter, more sustainable, and higher returning activities. For those in charge of managing and keeping track of medical devices, a smart cybersecurity solution can be a huge time saver and total game changer – helping hospitals operate faster, smarter, and more efficiently.


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