Prioritizing collaboration and long-term partnership in the RFP process

Contributing lab leaderJina Forys, Graham Gregorich & Dr. Anthony Killeen

Requests for proposals (RFPs) traditionally have focused on securing functional and economical equipment for laboratories but more than these basic criteria are needed to face some of today’s laboratory challenges. 

M Health Fairview, a healthcare organization with 10 hospitals, over 60 clinics, and more than 3,300 healthcare providers,1 recently sought to improve outcomes by standardizing their system across all sites. 

While considering the size of the challenge they were facing, the team soon realized they needed to ensure that all stakeholders were happy with the results. They knew they needed to choose a vendor who wouldn’t just sell them a product, but who would be aligned with their vision for excellent lab operations.

Jina Forys, Director of Acute Laboratory at M Health, Graham Gregorich, Site Leader and Lab Supervisor at M Health CSC, and Dr. Anthony Killeen, Director of Clinical Laboratories and President of ADLM, explain how they approached the RFP and what made it different this time.

Article highlights:

  • When laboratories face new and complex operational challenges more than just functional and economical equipment is needed to be successful.
  • For long-term stability laboratories need truly collaborative and innovative partnerships with their vendors.
  • This relationship can be tested during the RFP process by approaching it as an opportunity to collaborate with vendors.
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Moving the RFP process beyond the transactional

Q: The RFP process is an essential part of any new equipment decision. What about your situation made you rethink the way you approached it? 

Jina Forys:  Before this RFP we had 13 different sites running chemistry testing using three different systems, so we were not on a single uniform platform. We were looking to create standardization across our sites with one system, so it was a big decision and one we really wanted to get right.

In previous RFPs, we were focused on the technical aspects of a piece of equipment. What does it do, can the frontline staff operate it? Are there any bells and whistles that we should know about? While those are important features, we didn’t always look at the bigger picture. 

Specifically, we hadn’t considered the vendor in as much detail. What was their reputation for quality, collaboration, or customer support? That meant we ended up with a technically sound piece of equipment, but we didn’t always feel supported by the vendor that sold us the equipment and the supplies. Essentially, we got what we were asking for, but nothing more. To avoid this, our approach had to be different this time. 

Q: What was the most important difference you were looking for? 

Graham Gregorich: Changing vendors creates disruption for our staff, creates disruption for our clinicians, and keeping things consistent over a longer term helps us develop trust in the people that we're working with. I believe it has the potential to add another level of quality to what you offer the patient when you are consistent in your practice, so I was hoping for a longer-term partnership than what I’d seen previously. 

Tony Killeen: As a team, we had a lot of prior experience through our different labs, and a good awareness of the vendors who are out there. Any one of these companies can provide a chemical analyzer, but there’s a lot more to think about. When I think about a true partnership with a vendor, it’s more than just being a customer and buying their product. We want people who are going to be interested in what we’re doing on a long-term basis, and who are going to make sure we succeed. 

Jina Forys: This idea came up a lot, that for such a big system change we needed to create a long-term partner. Somebody who is not just checking the boxes to sell us a piece of equipment that we can use for the life of the contract. We wanted somebody we could see ourselves renewing with and not having to do another massive system conversion seven or eight years down the road.

Laboratory RFP strategies to asses vendor partnership

Jina Forys
Director of Acute Laboratory

Graham Gregorich
Laboratory Supervisor

Reframing the RFP process as an opportunity to collaborate

Q: Extending the RFP focus to include vendor service is a new approach. How did you get your team on board? 

Jina Forys: Internally we had a lot of stakeholders to consider, so the first step was to put together a comprehensive project plan outlining the people who have a stake in this decision. It was a very long list. It was every site's manager, technical specialists, and medical directors from across the system.

As a result, we created a decision committee, which was essentially five of the more senior leaders on our team that represented the entire group of stakeholders. They were able to speak to those stakeholder needs and together we could make a single decision on behalf of the whole group, and that I think worked really well in this case to keep everybody aligned and clear.

The very first thing we did with this group was we put together a list of critical criteria. A lot of what the decision committee talked about was how we were going to think bigger than just the technical. Ultimately we were trying to answer the question, ‘how is a vendor going to collaborate after go live?’ That was a really important question that we all wanted to be able to understand before we got into an eight-year agreement. All the stakeholders were able to participate in creating that list, and we ended up with a very thorough, but well-organized list of critical criteria that were important to the entire group.

RFPs offer a real-time assessment opportunity

Q: With that in mind what was different about your approach with vendors this time? 

Jina Forys: We knew we were going to have both a technical and vendor support section of our RFP, so we identified some key areas in our critical criteria that weren’t easy to quantify. There are certain things that you can't have the vendor self-assess. Collaboration was an important value that we were looking for in a long-term partner, so we looked at how could we assess the collaboration of that vendor through our RFP process.

We weren’t going to ask the vendors ‘how well do you collaborate with your customers’? That wasn’t really going to be helpful to us as they’re all going to give us their best sales pitch. So how do we actually evaluate collaboration, how do we evaluate quality from a neutral perspective? Laying out that critical criteria played a key role. 

Tony Killeen: Practically, a lot of our process was the same as a traditional RFP in that we provided detailed information about the kind of equipment that we might need, specific expectations, names of tests, some estimates of the sizes of the sites because it's across a system that has hospitals and smaller clinics as well. We reviewed all of the proposals and we also did initial assessments of the company's reputation for quality, safety, partnership, and so forth.

We invited chosen vendors to come in and give a presentation, and we had one-on-one conversations with their team. From that we got a sense of what their level of engagement was likely to be, and if their company was going to support us. Ultimately are they somebody that I would like to work with for a period of five, seven, ten, or maybe more years, depending on how things turn out.

Jina Forys: When it came to the negotiation process that’s where I realized I did things very differently than I had at other times. Before I thought negotiating was sort of a game that you’re trying to win. Almost like an arm-wrestling match. You try to be a little cunning, a little sneaky, a little strategic maybe. I realized my strategy this time around was just to be open and transparent and say, ‘OK, here’s where I’m struggling’, ‘here’s where our organization needs help’. ‘What do you have to offer me to help me solve my problems?’. So instead of being this cunning game, it became an invitation. An invitation to help me solve my problems. And that was a very different way than we had done historically.   

The vendors then asking us questions and coming up with creative solutions gave us an opportunity to see how each of them was working with us, and it was also a way that we were able to assess collaboration in real time during the RFP process. That’s something that's really hard to otherwise assess for yourself.

Stratgic vendor partnerships

Dr. Anthony Killeen
Director of Clinical Laboratories

Advocating a long-term approach to RFPs and vendor partnership

Q: What benefits have you seen so far from the new approach to the RFP process? 

Jina Forys: I think the best part of this RFP process, I can honestly say, is that it brought our organization together. Potentially, for one of the first times we were able to make a decision of this magnitude, all aligned, all together. We made the decision and then supported that decision and our ultimate goal of creating a long-term partnership with a vendor has been successful. We continue to this day to work together to solve challenges together, and I can say that with the focus on collaboration in our RFP, we got what we were looking for. 

Q: Do you have any advice for lab leaders approaching RFPs in the future? 

Jina Forys: My strategy for any future RFP I’m involved in, and the advice that I would give someone else, is to be really intentional about what it is you’re looking for. I would be even more intentional about those qualitative things. The things I can’t quantify. Do you have a troponin assay? It’s an easy yes or no, but things like, ‘What does collaboration look like to that vendor?’, ‘What does service look like to that vendor?’, ‘What’s your strategy to partner with our biomedical engineers?’ The things that you can’t necessarily check a box, yes or no, for. Or give a hard number too.

I would also be more open with the vendors that are involved in the RFP, that this is what I’m looking for and this is how you can collaborate with me. I would make that invitation clear, I am inviting you to collaborate with me in the RFP and the negotiation. 

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  1. M Health Fairview. (2024). Webpage available from [Accessed February 2024]