Integration Tool: Strategic Supplier Partnerships

Tasha Patterson@Work

Strategic Supplier Partnerships Can Bridge Program Gaps

Strategic Supplier PartnershipsBy Tori Weeks, CWCP

Director of Workforce Solutions

When employers pursue integrated absence management (IAM), they often bring suppliers into strategic partnerships to achieve their ambitious goals.

The program model of using a single-source vendor for a turnkey integration program was rejected by the market about 20 years ago.

However, employers still want the advantages promised by that model, and have found that strategic partnerships can deliver some of those advantages. Suppliers who are sensitive to employer needs can bring more integration to difficult and fragmented program areas such as healthcare. And through strategic partnership tools such as vendor summits, employers can create a program environment where integration is facilitated among their suppliers.

Supplier Relationship Management

Just as integration exists on a continuum, from rigid program silos to full integration using a data warehouse, supplier relationship management (SRM) also exists on a continuum.

At the base level of SRM, the employer coordinates between rigid program silos to reduce confusion for employees who have a leave or disability claim. At this level, cost savings are achieved by reducing the cost of services provided in each individual program silo. Suppliers may collaborate on handoffs between silos if the employer is not equipped to perform that function.

At the second level of SRM, the employer is beginning to manage the total cost of absences, not just the costs that occur inside silos. The employer may have a standard return-to-work (RTW) process for most absences, further improving the employee claim experience. In this level, suppliers are often asked to perform new services such as helping the employer identify and manage costs.

At the third level of SRM, the employer may have a working model of the total cost of absence and focus on key program performance metrics to reduce costs. The employer recruits supplier partners to help achieve several goals: reconfigure program silos, improve performance and data on key metrics, standardize data format, and improve employee handoffs between silos.

At the fourth level of SRM, suppliers are recruited as strategic partners to create a highly-customized program model and implement best practices such as:

  • Shared databases or a data warehouse
  • Integrated systems
  • Vendor cross-training
  • Non-disclosure agreements
  • Comprehensive employee medical authorization
  • Cross-matching data points to measure effectiveness
  • Streamline forms and processes
  • Collaborative onsite analysis and strategic development

These practices often require a high level of supplier collaboration with the employer and between suppliers; a vendor summit can be an effective process to build this collaboration. At this level of supplier relationship management, many programs require highly proficient and innovative suppliers that are encouraged to propose program changes. Employers recognize that this level of integration demands long-term relationships with suppliers, including transparency and trust. Sophisticated integration environments require effective execution, which does not happen without the employer’s willingness to invest in these types of services.

Vendor Summit Objectives

A vendor summit provides opportunities to build collaboration between suppliers, and direct that shared focus to particular issues or goals. The basic agenda may be anywhere from an incremental improvement in an IAM program to implementing a new program model.

If the summit has an especially ambitious agenda, it is helpful for the project manager to have  proposed the program model to corporate leadership and secured the high level of support needed for a bold initiative before planning the summit.

While a summit may focus on supplier partnership and collaboration, it also creates opportunities to bring the organization’s key internal players into the integration discussion, with the goal of changing corporate culture and improving program alignment. Because vendor summits require planning, communication, and development, employers may want to consider securing a budget for a consultant.

Regardless of how ambitious the summit agenda is, here are some common goals for all summits:

  • Identify what services are offered by each department that help support the employee’s well-being and the benefits strategy.
  • Optimize points of integration across departments and vendors.
  • Develop processes and workflows for ongoing program improvement.

Vendor Summit Payoffs

Vendor summits operate on the basis of shared interest; this underlying good will is amplified by a well-planned event. A well-organized and executed summit can produce many positive outcomes for an employer organization, such as:

  • Improved employee experience during disability claims, leaves, or other absences, resulting from awareness of various resources and linking them to provide complete employee care
  • Reducing duplicative requests to providers and employees through improved ability to share related medical information
  • Improved communication between program areas
  • Streamlined absence management workflow and process
  • A shift in corporate culture towards a consistent message and process
  • Improved lost time outcomes, such as reduced incidence or reduced duration of absences
  • Greater employee awareness of high value in the total benefit package
  • Improved alignment of the organization’s strategic goals
  • Increased participation in an integrated health management approach by other key players internal to the organization, or by improved vendor collaboration

Worksite Medical Integration

Vendor summits help firm up and expand the overall context of integration affecting all vendors. Healthcare, one of the most challenging areas of integration, merits a more focused initiative. One approach is worksite medical integration.

The fragmented, highly siloed nature of U.S. healthcare can create barriers to effective prevention, care, and management of health conditions. Injecting medical providers into the workplace, through an onsite clinic or periodic consulting visits, supports deeper interaction between employers and employees for the RTW process. These providers can rescue employees who might otherwise “fall through the cracks” in the healthcare system.

Frequently, such providers include physical or occupational therapists (PTs or OTs), and focus on musculoskeletal conditions. These providers have helped solve problems outside their specialty by making appropriate referral to other medical services available to employees, which requires additional education and training for the providers. Where employers offer onsite clinics, the provider roster may include physicians or nurses and the scope of care may be broader.

Knowing the precise physical requirements of essential job functions, PTs or OTs can design accurate plans for transitional RTW. Physicians working offsite usually know only what the employee tells them about job requirements, and often prescribe restrictions that are needlessly broad and counter-productive. By bringing musculoskeletal care onsite, employers and employees alike enjoy a better-informed and more holistic approach to recovery and return to work. When transitional RTW is planned carefully, graduated work assignments can be therapeutic.

Here are a few case studies that highlight multiple vendors working together to solve RTW cases.

Case Study 1

An employee seriously injured in an automobile collision while off work needed a graduated RTW program, and was motivated to achieve a successful return to work. The treating PT in the health plan network had only limited knowledge of job tasks. The supplier, Briotix, provided a PT who met with the employee and the treating PT to reach agreement on a graduated RTW plan including therapy focused on the essential functions of the job. Briotix provided onsite job coaching to help the employee perform tasks safely and prevent re-injury. Briotix also collaborated to help Unum expedite payment of disability benefits, needed by the employee to facilitate timely closure of the case with successful return to full duty.

Case Study 2

While delivering onsite injury prevention services, a Briotix provider met an employee whose spouse was starting chemotherapy for an advanced stage cancer. The treating provider indicated that treatment options were limited and the prognosis was poor. The Briotix provider knew about a second opinion service available through the employer, and referred the employee to that program. The second opinion called for further testing, which indicated a need for change in treatment regimen — opening new options and hope for the employee and spouse.


Even in traditional, silo-dominated disability or absence management programs, coordination requires the cooperation of many parties including vendors. When employers embark on integration, they require vendor support in modifying silos, facilitating handoffs, and greater communication between silos. The more sophisticated the integration program, the more important strategic vendor partnerships become. Vendor summits have become a recognized best practice in taking integration to the next level of performance, and more focused efforts such as worksite medical integration can create better outcomes for employees, employers, and vendors.