The NHS GS1 Programme – The Inside Story from Owen Inglis Humphrey

We've written several articles about the GS1 barcoding initiative in the NHS and most recently, the decisions around appointing the six "demonstrator" sites. These Trusts (hospitals or small groups of hospitals) have been chosen to receive £2 million each central funding for development of programmes using GS1 as the basis for improved stock management and more (as we will hear).

Some observers have been critical of both the programme, seeing it as a waste of money as so much precious resource has been focused on just a few Trusts, and also of the choice of the final six, noting that none are in London, the West Midlands or the North-West, for instance.

So we were pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Owen Inglis-Humphrey, who has been working in the Department of Health as the driving force behind the GS1 programme in recent months. He previously worked with the Scottish Government eProcurement programme, and indeed has written for Spend Matters in the past. He is working as a contractor for the Department and was happy to speak to us because as he put it, "I designed the process, and took people through it, so I'm happy to explain the logic behind it".

We started by talking about what the NHS was trying to achieve with this. Inglis-Humphrey makes the point that this started out as an eProcurement strategy, “to address the problem that we just didn't know what was being bought across the health system. Despite the scale and complexity of what we buy in health, there was a feeling that if retailers could manage this issue, why couldn't we"?

So various reports on the benefits of coding, going back some years now, identified that if we can put a barcode on all products coming into the NHS and capture the relevant data in a common and consistent manner, then this will enable much better management of spend and stock. We can have variation in systems, Owen explains, and of course in the locations where products are held or used physically (in wards, pharmacies etc.) but still get the information we need in a common format.  And it seems logical that coding should be done at source. That is the easiest way of achieving the desired result - then the relevant information can be captured at the point of activity.

"There is increasing off-the-shelf technology to enable this - you can download a bar code reader to your phone in 30 seconds now" he says. But other changes are needed, for instance, we need a standard and consistent naming convection for locations, which simplifies asset management and helps in practical ways such as suppliers having more clarity on delivery locations.

There is a parallel here with patient identification. Each patient in hospital now has a wristband which gives a patient number apparently, but generally not much is being done with this information. But you can see how this could link up with the GS1 product coding, being able to identify which products (from blood to bandages) have been used on which patient.

So the technology enables us to build a detailed picture of "where, what and who" in terms of the medical treatments and cost structures. That means the potential benefits go well beyond "just" eProcurement and get into important issues around patient safety and experience as well as operational efficiencies and cost reduction.

And "this is about standards, not systems" he emphasises. Different systems can then sit on top of and make use of the standards, whether that is inventory management, purchase to pay, including electronic invoices, financial management or traceability. "Most of the big supermarkets could trace and remove products pretty quickly when the horsemeat scandal broke. When the NHS has had similar issues, it has been almost impossible to achieve the same response".  And, Inglis-Humphrey says, "there will be more use cases as the standards are implemented".

So that is the background really to the GS1 programme; in part 2, we will talk to Owen Inglis-Humphrey about the selection of the six demonstrators, and look at how that process was executed.

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