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Healthcare Laundry: Changes, Road Ahead

Author says healthcare laundries need to act on coronavirus-related changes, build trust

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — The healthcare laundry industry is still prospering and finding opportunities, despite the difficult environment created by the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.

Moving forward, it’s key for healthcare laundries to embrace the changes that have happened, take advantage of opportunities and continue to build trust with their healthcare customers.

LABOR, TECHNOLOGY

As volumes returned once hospitals resumed elective surgeries, one of the most challenging issues for our laundry plants in putting out timely, clean linens has been staffing.

 The labor market has been turned upside down. Despite record unemployment, laundries have faced headwinds getting employees to return to work.

The industry also employs a high proportion of women workers. The furloughing of employees early on in the pandemic resulted in many women being called upon to help their families with childcare and eldercare. With the supplemental financial support from government stimulus, these workers remain out of the workforce. 

In addition, the many new government stimulus programs and increased unemployment benefits work at cross purposes and disincentivize the unemployed from returning to the workforce.

During the downturn, many healthcare laundries, including members of the Healthcare Linen Alliance (HLA), have used the opportunity to make major capital investments in plant and equipment to improve productivity and quality.

The healthcare laundry sector remains a labor-intensive business. Due to the type of products we process, made from various fabrics and textiles of non-uniform shape and size, the ability to automate finishing and handling of many products remains a challenge.

It remains to be seen how machine-learning and other elements of artificial intelligence (AI) will help our production operations become more efficient in the future. In the meantime, the industry will have to find more creative ways to attract talent.

CUSTOMER ISSUES

What is the healthcare customer asking for during this pandemic?

The full return of non-emergency, elective surgeries to pre-pandemic levels in many cities and states has been an on-again, off-again proposition. As a result, our linen inventories have at times been locked away in hospital linen rooms, operating room (OR) suites and intensive care unit (ICU) closets with the linen not being used or returned to our facilities. 

Healthcare laundry is a “reprocessing” business. Laundries need a steady supply of soiled linen returned from the customers to meet the demand for clean linen. Increasing awareness and education has been important to make sure both the laundries and the customers understand what was happening and trailing problems this “frozen inventory” creates.

With in-patient activity off, we see hospitals asking for increases in reusable personal protective equipment (PPE), specifically cover garments like isolation gowns, scrubs and lab coats. 

Since the spring we have a big demand for reusable isolation gowns as many hospitals and health systems have elected to replace single-use, disposable gowns that previously dominated the marketplace. Reusable isolation gowns create a “local supply chain,” with the laundry reprocessing taking place in the local community and generally turned around within 24 hours.

FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCES

Randy Bartsch, the CEO of Alliance member Ecotex Healthcare Linen Service based in Seattle, says, “The linen and laundry services we provide have in all cases been recognized as an essential service.”

During the pandemic, Ecotex was able to fulfill orders and shipping linens without disruption.

“Our management team has worked tirelessly to support our employees so together we can continue to perform these critical support services,” adds Bartsch.

Ecotex deployed an expedited “rapid response” reprocessing program to support its hospital customers with critical linens in short supply by offering multiple pick-ups and deliveries daily.

Early on in the pandemic, San Diego-based Emerald Textiles decided to invest in PPE whenever a supply-chain opportunity presented itself. Many of its customers did the same, which created incremental revenue opportunities for the company as normal in-patient linen volumes dropped. 

For Emerald, the biggest challenge remains rebuilding its stable labor force.

For Alliance member Novo Healthcare Service, based in Atlanta, company President Randy Rosetti comments on the difficulties faced this year, “The pandemic added tremendous pressure on both our supply chain and our customers’ supply chains.

“We had to go to extraordinary efforts to get product to meet the tremendous increase in demand from our customers with protective garments and scrubs.”

Many healthcare institutions seem to be asking healthcare laundries for help sourcing PPE items, including medical-grade masks, latex gloves, bonnets and foot coverings.

This has helped Alliance member Mark Carter of Up To Date Laundry in Baltimore recover some of his lost revenues for the year. Up To Date has also been asked to support some of the temporary offsite pandemic treatment centers with new rental laundry services. 

Member Richard Smith of Century Linen located in Gloversville, New York, shares that his company has also benefited by helping his healthcare customers, and even local schools source PPE items for direct sale. Smith says this was a welcome source of extra income for his business as they struggled during the downturn.

ROAD AHEAD

As we look to 2021, the future seems somewhat uncertain. Many questions are yet to be answered.

When will the pandemic subside? How well will the new vaccines work, and what percentage of the population will be inoculated against this coronavirus? And equally important, what will happen to the many small businesses, shops, restaurants, neighborhood retailers and more, that make up the backbone of our country? Can these businesses survive?

Some things are certain, and our healthcare laundry industry needs to capitalize on them.  Some of those certainties are the need to maintain the enhanced sanitation and extra housekeeping protocols inside our laundries that were instituted during this pandemic.

We also need to work with our equipment vendors to innovate and develop new ways to help us become more efficient in our plants. We need to build trust with our customers that we can supply a reliable, local, assured supply of high-quality hygienically clean healthcare linens.

We need to convince our customers that properly processed reusables are a better source of certain PPE cover garments like isolation gowns than disposables.

The aging demographics of North America tell us that the healthcare industry will continue to expand. As a vital support service industry, healthcare laundry will continue to grow along with our customers for at least the next decade or more. 

To ensure our long-term success the members of the Healthcare Linen Alliance are committed to help our customers grow their businesses cost effectively, with a safe, reliable supply of fresh laundry, linens and the direct sale items that help create a safe, comfortable environment for patient care.