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Are Reusable Barrier Items Cost-Effective?

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Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/hronos7

Eric Frederick |

ROANOKE, Va. — I met with my production and maintenance staff recently to prepare for taking on a new account. We needed to move some of the work we were processing in our 275-pound open-pocket washers to one of our tunnel washers because of the continual growth of our reusable-isolation-gown business. It’s grown from 1,200 gowns a month to 92,000 per month! (Watch for more details about that in next month’s column.)

One of my maintenance men asked a question that shocked me. He wanted to know why we believed we could make money processing this type of product when the general consensus in the trade journals was that it was unprofitable. I decided not to argue with him about what the various trade journals may or may not have reported but instead to tackle the issue head-on.

Reusable barrier gowns and drapes made of 100% polyester are lightweight and therefore don’t work well with a system that charges by the pound, I explained. We had chosen to charge by the piece since our system allowed us to charge either by the piece or the pound. Charging by the piece also allowed our customers to make a quick and easy comparison to the various disposable alternatives on the market.

I also explained that, over the years, I had developed a special wash formula for processing these gowns that minimizes degradation to the fabric and increases their useful life. We also add a barrier re-treatment product in every wash load to ensure the fabric retains its fluid-repellent properties.

By using a Sutter Hydrostatic tester, I’ve proven on a number of products that the fluid repellency after 75 uses was actually greater than when they were new.

Consumer education is a vital part of making the system economically viable. Reusable barrier items must be used properly and returned to the laundry in order for them to get the expected number of uses. A key component is the manner in which they are packaged. The better the products appear upon delivery, the more likely the end-user will treat them with respect. I’ve seen a number of delivery methods that simply don’t encourage this.

The feel and “drapeability” of a 100% polyester fluid-repellent isolation gown is preferred over any disposable alternative, in my experience. We got our opportunity to introduce reusable barrier isolation gowns during the initial stages of the H1N1 flu pandemic. Front-line caregivers were disturbed at the number of gowns that were being thrown into the trash and the effect it was having on the environment. They asked us to develop a more ecologically friendly system.

My staff recognized quickly that we had done a number of things to ensure that we could actually make money on the product. They also came to realize that the largest piece of the puzzle was in how we charged for the items. Cost per piece is a universal term used across all disciplines and relates well to how our competitors market their disposable products.

The end-user or hospital administrator will want answers to these questions:

• Will the reusable product properly protect my staff and patients?

• Is it comfortable?

• How does it compare with the cost of the product we’re using now?

• Can I get a dependable supply of the reusable product?

• Can it be delivered and used in the same manner and system as the rival disposable product?

Designing a system that positively answers all these questions will allow you to get and keep the business while making a profit.

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at efrederick@carilion.com.

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