NHS Procurement – our senior insider goes past the copier paper and round the U-Bend

(Following last week’s controversy over NHS procurement spend data, we’re delighted to feature a special guest post from a senior NHS procurement leader. We know who it is but they asked for anonymity for career preservation reasons!)

Now that the dust has settled after the Department of Health publication of procurement data on the performance of its own contractor (NHS Supply Chain or NHSSC) we can reflect on some smart dance moves and a hatchet job well done.

This administration has previous in terms of playing to the Daily Mail-reading blue-rinse middle classes (or the Telegraph in this case) – it seems like only yesterday that Jeremy Hunt accused the hopelessly overworked front-line NHS doctors and nurses of not working hard enough. Now we have the affable Dr Dan (Poulter) doing an “embarrassing bodies” exposé on the NHS Procurement fraternity.

The publication of the data and article caught everyone off guard, with the Health Care Supplies Association (HCSA) Chairman grumpily complaining that this wasn’t cricket. Fair play though to the DH Policy team, who according to insiders, fronted an acidic telephone conference with 30 or so irate Procurement leads seeking clarity around the data and the opportunity to vent a spleen or two (spleen ventors weren’t benchmarked surprisingly).

One can only hope that the ray of light that is Rob Knott (DH Procurement lead) will have shrugged his shoulders at this unnecessary politicisation of a real problem in the NHS as he tries to sort out the muddled landscape. I’m told some of the hilarious highlights of the call included :

  • Hertfordshire Community Trust are according to the data “best in class” at buying surgeons’ gloves. But in fact they ordered a whole pallet load in error, as they don’t actually do surgery.
  • The Plymouth team were stood on the naughty step for ordering a single sling at £28.20, but they actually buy boat-loads from another source at some £5 lower than the supposed “best in class” in the analysis.

This whole issue is something of an own goal for the DH and Business Services Authority, who manage the Supply Chain contract, as the data this is based on is from the contract that NHSSC/DHL manages on behalf of the DH for the NHS. By way of comic irony, NHSSC has employed lots of supermarket buyer types who have done what retail does best – that is, increase variety, move margin around and make scientific analysis of performance nearly impossible. What the NHS needs is an Aldi / Lidl approach, buy a limited but quality range at supremely great value - not loads of Tesco types slavishly hanging onto what worked well in the 1990s.

What wasn’t demonstrated by the data and hype was that many Trusts have some great professionals, working in difficult circumstances, keeping some pretty strong willed Consultants and Doctors happy and still delivering fantastic value in terms of high cost products (hips and knees etc.)

For too long the DH has been obsessed with Hubs, AT Kearney advice, NHSSC and the like. The sensible pragmatism of Duncan Eaton (ex PASA Chief) gave way to gun-slinging, shoot from the hip management over 10 years ago and Trusts have basically rowed their own boat in trying to create real value for the NHS front line.

Cash is tight now so this really should be the time for Trust procurement to make some modest investment in modern tools to manage P2P, e-bidding, spend analytics, benchmarking, GS1 compliant stock systems and social networking systems. That would bind the Trust procurement community together like never before.

We can hope that Dr Dan returns from his 6 weeks holiday refreshed and armed with the latest global benchmarking data highlighting how the UK is paying far less than the US for hips, knees, Stents and Renal products, and that Jeremy Hunt has had time to digest the fact that the US spends close to 20 % of GDP on healthcare whilst the UK is close to 10% of GDP - with better outcomes.

We can hope for a lot of things but with an election around the corner, we may see further data blizzards used to make a political point or two. Would the two previous wily Labour big hitters in health (Burnham and Hunt) have done a hatchet job like this? Personally I’d like to think not, but this isn’t procurement, this is politics. That’s why facts matter not one iota.

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First Voice

  1. Simon Walsh:

    Interesting analysis and some very pertinent points.
    Yours ( not so grumpy ) this week
    HCSA Chairman

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