Pat Mills, Department of Health Commercial Director, Speaks at HCSA Conference

We promised to say a bit more about the speech from Pat Mills at last week's Healthcare Supplies Association conference in Solihull. He is the relatively new Commercial Director at the Department of Health (DH).

As we said in our initial comments on the event, he got a good reception and people were pleased he made the effort to attend - despite the best efforts of Chiltern Railways to delay him. A couple of the more cynical delegates felt that there was a lack of hard content, and certainly his good intentions on capability building for instance were not supported by much in the way of hard plans. But he spoke with honesty and openness which went down well, and he certainly impressed the audience by his knowledge of the ancient programming language that the NHS Supply Chain warehousing system runs on!

He commented that the team at DH was "still trying to decipher the spending review" announced by government last week and work out what certain numbers meant. Is the transition / transformation fund of £2 billion for the NHS new money? What exactly do the figures of £1 billion "procurement savings" and £1 billion in inventory savings mean and how will this be measured? (Could it be that Treasury still basically make up the numbers with only a glancing resemblance to what the Departments tell them, like they did when I was a civil servant? Surely not ... )

One interesting comment was about "Minister's Mates" who offer "silver bullet" solutions to all the NHS's ills, including in our area. "Give me a contract and I can sort this out in six months" is their pitch, and Mills mentioned eInvoicing at this point. I wonder which "mate" in that field has been at the Minister!? He also touched on the pilots for the GS 1 programme, which we've mentioned a number of times of course.

In terms of hospital goods, consumables and so on, we need a more consolidated catalogue with better deals, he said, which is correct but is of course not new thinking, and he talked about the plan for NHS Supply Chain - agree better terms with DHL (done), improve the catalogue and clinical input (now), then from 2018 the future contract is likely to have "mixed private / public delivery". Interesting although he was not more specific about what that means exactly.

He does not want to mandate NHS SC but it should get to the point where it is "the obvious choice for Trusts who want to be efficient and effective". Market discussions around the new 2018 contract were due to start the day after the HCSA event, with an OJEU in April 2016.

As he approached the end of the session, he highlighted a long list of "need to fix" topics, which is worth repeating in full:

- Leadership

- Poor data and systems

- Multiple orders and invoices

- Variable capability and capacity

- Variation in prices paid and products used

- Fragmented systems and culture of no sharing

- Competing procurement landscape, confusing and costly

- Patchy sharing of information, best practice and knowledge

"How can we achieve our common goals together"? he asked - a very good question. And coming back to one of the very big questions - the "plan for upskilling everyone in the health procurement world". That is what Mills said - but we weren't clear if he HAS a plan, or is saying we NEED a plan! Clearly, there's quite a difference between those two positions.

In that area, as well as any others, we will have to see how much progress Mills and indeed the whole system can make and how quickly. He also did not cover the commissioning side of NHS procurement /commercial at all - perhaps not surprising in 30 minutes, although we get a sense that it maybe isn’t his main area of focus.

But to finish on a positive note, I don't think procurement leaders in the system are expecting miracles from “Head Office” these days (after years of disappointment). Realisation has dawned, we feel, that if real change is going to happen, it will be by in the main through local leaders driving local improvements in people, systems and stakeholder engagement, and hopefully sharing good experiences with procurement peers elsewhere.

That is the best chance of getting improved procurement performance across the NHS. If Mills can make progress in a few areas where national leadership is appropriate and sensible, set a generally positive tone for procurement, and provide some well-chosen pump-priming funding in certain areas, then he has every chance of getting a good reception next year too at HCSA 2016.

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Voices (3)

  1. Bill:

    There’s no doubt that Mr Mills injected a bit humour into his speech which, in a number of ways, distracted the audience from the realisation that they’re now on the hook to secure significant savings (£2bn) in the coming few years. It distracted the audience so much so that not one person spotted the significant gap in his slides. There wasn’t a single intimation about the team that he’s building in the department of health to complement the small army of interims and contractors whom he continues to employ despite the wealth of experience in the NHS. I hear that the entire eProcurement team is comprised of contractors and they’ve been there a number of years. Even Owen Inglis-Humphrey is a contractor, and yet Mr Mills announced to the entire HCSA audience that “this is the guy who will lead this”. Why doesn’t he know about the many excellent individuals in the NHS who have many years experience in implementing systems? Is this what he meant when he said that he would need to start visiting trusts? So, he’s been in post for over a year and hasn’t visited a single procurement team in any trust? How is this even plausible or credible?

  2. Sam Unkim:

    Try this

    Do a 5xWhys on his bullet points, and each and everyone, has been caused by ill-informed govt. interference going back 18 years.

    1. Dan:

      I suspect you could say the same about everything currently happening in the public sector, not just in procurement.

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