Bar coding – a sensible hospital procurement initiative or a missed opportunity?

We're going to be looking next week  at the changes to overall UK health policy announced by the politicians in recent days, and what they mean for procurement. But this week we saw an initiative announced by the Department of Health which sounds eminently sensible.

Currently there are a multitude of systems and approaches for procurement and for identifying products used by the NHS resulting in a lack of consistent information. For the first time standard ‘GS-1’ bar codes on products will be used across the NHS making it easier to track and compare purchases.

It involves bar-coding of supplies into and through the hospital supply chain, enabling tracking of stocks and usage, improved patient safety, better management of procurement, stock-holding and working capital. It can also help procurement executives and others get to grips with product rationalisation, with both commercial and clinical benefits (see our posts about the Durham hospitals for more detail).

But... I'm afraid years of working in and around the public sector has taken its toll.  I can't help looking for the issues that lie behind the glowing announcements.  And there are two here, the first captured in this section of the press release.

The Department of Health will now run a central procurement of GS-1 bar coding systems for the NHS to allow Trusts to use bar coding. This means all NHS Trusts can take part in the same procurement, helping them to choose the right system and saving them the costs of running their own procurement exercise.

So, this is, as far as I can see, an announcement that the Department is planning to run a procurement process, to appoint a firm or firms who can supply the technology that hospitals will need. So that will take a year, let's say, to run the competition, which means it will be more like 2 before this is up and running.

And secondly, tucked away in "Notes to Editors no.5" we find this.

The decision to invest in systems will sit with each Trust, the cost of investment will be covered by the savings made.

So the Department isn't paying for this themselves. That's down to each hospital. So this isn't even an agreed initiative, because every hospital will have to make its own purchase decision. Now, there may be little doubt that this is a good thing and almost certainly it has a convincing business case. But I can still see some hard-up hospitals saying (and perhaps 30% are financially struggling), 'we can't afford this'.  That would be a shame, and indicative of the problems we highlighted yesterday about the devolved strategies in areas like health and education.

Really, wouldn't it have been far easier, and to everyone's benefit if the Department had just found a few million - nothing in the context of the total health spend - and bought a national 'licence' and the necessary kit that all hospitals could use?  I'm sure there would have been significant purchase price economies by doing that as well - suppliers won't offer the same price for what will be presumably another 'framework' without real commitment.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but it looks like a potentially great initiative that could yet falter. And announcing it smacks of a typical "the Minister says we need a good news story NOW" press release - something good MIGHT happen some time in the future......

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Voices (4)

  1. Craig Lorne:

    Graham Medwell and myself were delivering this kind of system at Leeds Teaching Hospitals ten years ago. Nice to see the rest of the (English) NHS finally thinking about catching up…

  2. Christine Morton:

    It’s already being done in the pharmacies of some UK hospitals – and robots are doing the dispensing.

    1. Rob:

      Well spotted Christine. But, sadly, that’s north of the border and a different Health system. They tend to deliver things much quicker up there and have embraced a much more centralised approach to procurement etc

      Though it does explain why, when I last visited that hospital, and after purchasing some M&Ms from a dispensing machine, I was as high as a kite for several days afterwards…

  3. Rob:

    Again, you’re spot on Peter.

    A few scars from the Connecting for Health programme perhaps where national solutions were imposed upon the Health system. The idea of a nationally negotiated ‘license’ does make sense but giving them the option to adopt it (or not) does not.

    The NHS spends circa £20 billion+ across mid-to-back office services and products and front-line commodities and consumables. (NHS Supply Chain will tell you that they have circa 500,000 items in their on-line catalogue – though I’ll bet that 20,000+ of these still represent stationery). And the NHS is the world’s third largest single employer (1.4 million staff) after the Indian Railways and the Red Army – that’s a lot of specifiers and purchasers. Odd that you can tell so many nurses what uniform they must wear, but you can’t tell them what they can and can’t purchase!

    Perhaps they should also barcode all of the staff.

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