Patience Pays Off In The Healthcare Vertical
By Brian Albright, Business Solutions magazine
For Alpha Systems, reliable printers and a solutions-based approach have helped grow its healthcare business.
When it comes to selling automated data collection solutions, casting a wide net across a number of verticals can help balance your revenue streams as different industries experience upswings and downswings. That’s been part of the guiding philosophy at Alpha Systems, a Midlothian, VA-based integrator that specializes in bar code technology data collection systems, mobile computing IT support, and label media.
Whether the company is working with a frozen food distributor, a warehouse, a military installation, a transportation company, or a hospital, vice president of sales Joe Panella says the Alpha team leverages its data collection knowledge to solve each client’s business problems. “I come in with a blank pad of paper, and I want to hear what their business problems are,” Panella says. “We start off at a white board conversation, and we end up testing a solution.”
Like many other integrators in the space, Alpha launched in 1989 focusing on providing bar-coding solutions for warehouses and manufacturing facilities. But as those traditional markets contracted, Alpha expanded its reach into the mobile work space, including field order entry, vehicle maintenance, direct store delivery applications, as well as vision and laser-etching applications for manufacturers. The company also shifted its approach from a product-based to a solutions-based pitch. Alpha expects to see sales growth of 10 percent this year thanks to this solutions-focused, multivertical approach.
According to Panella, this solutions focus and the company’s ability to deliver the right technology for the job has helped it expand into other verticals, including healthcare. Currently, Alpha provides labeling and scanning solutions for pharmacies, laboratories, hospitals, and other facilities. Over time, healthcare has grown to account for roughly 10 percent of the company’s business.
Panella says that he sees the most demand for pharmacy and blood bag labeling, asset management and tracking, medication administration, blood transfusion verification, patient wristbands, and specimen tracking. There are other opportunities as well, including fixedmount bar code scanners and vision inspection solutions for labs and pharmacies to assist in robotic sampling and sorting systems.
“We’re also seeing demand for mobile carts for nurses, emergency and disaster recovery systems for the wireless infrastructure throughout a hospital, and even tablet computers for the nursing staff and the doctors,” Panella says. On the wireless side, Alpha also provides Motorola’s AirDefense WLAN management and security solutions to many of its healthcare clients.
Healthcare IT: Who To Sell To, And When
Sales cycles in healthcare vary based on the type of facility and funding. “You’d think hospitals and doctors offices would have a lot of money on hand, but they have more budget problems than I’ve seen in any other vertical,” Panella says. “For smaller projects in this market, you’re looking at three to six months or more than a year for larger deployments.”
The laboratory or pharmacy manager is the key decision maker for traditional labeling solutions at a hospital. “I’ve got to have three people in my buy cycle,” Panella says. “You need the IT director, the manager, and the purchasing agent. The IT director is crucial to me because what we deploy has to interface with whatever other systems they are running.”
Even in cases where there is a clear benefit to both patient safety and operational costs, it can be challenging for healthcare facilities to pull the trigger on funding. As a result, financing and lease options can be attractive for customers in the healthcare market. Even then, VARs may find themselves developing client opportunities for more than a year.
“For example, we’re talking to a large doctors office in Northern Virginia, and they need a variety of scanning technology to manage their immunization and pharmaceutical tracking,” Panella says. “They are looking at this for 2015, even though they know they are making mistakes in their inventory and buying too much supply. Vaccines are expiring on the shelf, but they can’t do it any sooner. The ROI is there, but they can’t put it on the books for another year.”
The cost justification in this instance (and in most similar deployments) comes in avoiding errors. “They are entering the wrong information constantly,” Panella says. “The NDC [National Drug Code] number on the side of a test tube is 11 digits long, and they have five or six pages of forms to fill out before they can give the immunization. The path they travel on the form is not direct either, so there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes.”
Using bar code scanning and automated forms on a mobile device would speed that process and eliminate errors. “There’s also the dollar amount of what they carry on the shelves,” Panella says. “If they overorder, it expires, and they don’t really have any way to know what they’ve got on the shelf without good inventory tracking.”
Error avoidance is also at the heart of patient safety and medication administration applications. “They want to make sure they get the right patient, the right dose at the right time, throughout the hospital,” Panella says. “We also do a lot of work with IV bag tracking.”
Joe Panella, Alpha Systems
In those applications, label selection and printer selection are critical, because the labels have to work in different temperatures. “A lot of times I’ll see other companies select the wrong label material, and it falls off or the ink doesn’t adhere properly, which causes smearing,” Panella says. “Or they size the label too small, and it’s difficult to read. Legibility of those labels is extremely important in these facilities, even with bar code scanning. I always make sure our hospital clients have spare print heads on-site, because the print head is the typical culprit when they have label quality problems.”
Alpha also sells patient wristband and mobile cart solutions to healthcare clients, as well as some 802.11-based RFID tracking systems. Hardware requirements for healthcare are highly specific, and Alpha offers a variety of purpose-built hardware from multiple vendors. “With the hardware, you want devices that have germ-free or antimicrobial materials and that are resistant to the cleaning chemicals they use at a medical facility, which can be quite harsh,” Panella says. “In some cases, they are also looking for silent scanners that don’t beep, because it disturbs the patients.”
Panella attributes much of Alpha’s success to its ability to work closely with clients to develop a technology solution on the front end and to provide hands-on support after the deployment. The team lets the client see exactly how the new data collection system will work as early as possible, so they can see what the benefits will be and work through any design challenges.
“We write some software and prototype a system to show them how the data will flow,” Panella says. “Prototyping is big with our customers because they want to try before they buy, and we can usually accommodate that on a small scale.”
Panella and the sales team also keep in close contact with clients after the installation. “We do a great job of working with our clients,” Panella says. “If they call me up on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m., I can be there at 2:30 because we’re close. If we need to, we can service printers on-site when someone is having a problem and it’s urgent. They know we are going to be there for them.”