Advances In Healthcare Garment Inventory Boost Efficiency Of Laundry Service Industry

As seen in Today's Surgicenter, September 2007


The healthcare garment rental and laundry service industry has come a long way in its approach to achieving physician and patient satisfaction. Key factors that have influenced the industry are stringent government standards relating to bloodborne pathogens and environmental concerns as well as increasing costs and competition in healthcare delivery. To address these factors, physician practices may need to reevaluate the way they inventory and launder patient gowns, scrub suits, lab coats and linens. And, while making the right choice may seem simple, there's more to this evaluation than meets the eye.

Current Approaches

Here are some of the most popular approaches used by physician practices for laundering and inventorying healthcare garments.

  1. Self-laundering. With self-laundering, physician practices have their own inventory of patient gowns, lab coats and linens, and launder them in-house. This approach ensures inventory and can be cost effective for small practices. However, self-laundering can also be cumbersome. It requires sufficient storage space to hold inventory, may be more costly than anticipated and may not meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for bloodborne pathogens.
  2. Using an outside laundry service for owned inventory. This approach may be more convenient than self-laundering and may even be more cost effective. The disadvantage is that outside healthcare laundry services have a high incidence of misplaced inventory and unless they specifically say they meet OSHA standards, they may not be doing so.
  3. Using disposable paper gowns and linens for patients and self-laundering lab coats and other medical garments. Disposable gowns and linens are convenient and meet OSHA standards. However, when compared to fabric garments, they are less comfortable for patients, less environmentally friendly and may even be more costly than laundering.
  4. Outsourcing the entire process to a healthcare rental, laundry and delivery service. This approach streamlines the process, combines costs into a predetermined regular monthly expense, and is required to meet OSHA standards. The disadvantage is that outside rental, laundry and delivery services are notorious for mistakes in inventory and delivery.

To address healthcare facility inventory and laundry needs, the healthcare rental and laundry industry has made significant changes in the way it conducts business. Some of these changes are described below.

Compliance with OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens Standard

To comply with OSHA's Occupational Exposures to Bloodborne Pathogens standard and the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Emergency Act, healthcare rental and laundering companies are required to meet specific standards to protect patients and employees from potential exposure to blood and/or body fluids from the handling and processing of healthcare linens. OSHA considers almost all laundry used in patient care to be contaminated. As a result, many companies are packaging garments individually to prevent the risk of cross contamination from soiled products. In addition, soiled garment containers and bags at physician practices must be appropriately marked for compliance and safety.

Inventory and Delivery Problems 

To reduce inconsistency in inventory and delivery and increase accuracy, companies are increasing their use of radio frequency identification (RFID) to transmit product-related information. The proven technology is used by large organizations such as Wal-Mart and the United States Department of Defense to improve supply chain management.

In the healthcare rental and laundry industry, RFID ensures consistent inventory and increases the accuracy of information relating to where the garment belongs, how many times the garment has been processed, whether it needs mending and where it has to go. Unlike conventionally used bar codes, RFID doesn't fade and it offers a better read rate.

The benefits of RFID technology include:

  • Elimination of discrepancies in inventory. The same garments that are picked up are returned so healthcare facilities can see what they use. In addition, the need for additional inventory is eliminated.
  • Prevention of mistakes. Sorting is automated and information is shared, which takes the guesswork out of the process and reduces inconsistencies.
  • Simplification of business process. The process takes care of itself, so it's one less thing physician practices need to think about.
  • Reduction in loss charges. Every garment is accounted for, meaning costly losses of popular garments, such as scrub suits, will be reduced.
  • Ensuring compliance with OSHA's bloodborne pathogens standards. The process virtually eliminates handling and touching of soiled garments.

Healthcare rental and laundering industry experts recognize the competitive healthcare environment and the importance of making sure patients are comfortable. As a result, healthcare rental and laundering companies are choosing higher-quality fabrics that perform well with repeated use and maintain patient comfort.

Physician practices that outsource their healthcare garment rental and laundry services have one fixed cost for this service that they can budget for each month. The practice does not have to invest in inventory or laundering equipment and therefore it has no unexpected expenses relating to this aspect of the business.

In an increasingly competitive and less profitable healthcare industry, physician practices need to achieve the greatest economies of scale in all aspects of their business. In addition, they need to set themselves apart from their competitors. With changes in the healthcare garment rental and laundry industry, practices can control costs, satisfy their patients and meet OSHA standards. 

Jeff Berstein is president of ImageFIRST Healthcare Laundry Specialists.