The trouble with the NHS - why changes to procurement methods are urgently needed

Lack of PPE during the coronavirus pandemic highlights ongoing problems with the way the NHS buys goods and services

The PPE crisis during the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted problems with the way the NHS procures goods and services, with just one major platform for all transactions

The COVID-19 outbreak has heaped pressure on NHS services, but it has also once again highlighted major problems with the way health trusts procure equipment.

For years we have known that the NHS pays far too much for goods and services, with massive variation – up to 35% or more – in the amount individual trusts pay for comparable products.

Ed Bradley

But the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that, not only are prices a problem, but choice and availability are also a key issue.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff on the frontline – such as facemasks, gloves and aprons – have been in short supply since the beginning of the outbreak.

And recently it was reported that surgical gowns ordered from Turkey by the Government did not meet British safety standards and some had failed quality checks.

So what needs to be done to address these problems and ensure the NHS has access to a full range of certified products at a reasonable price?

Virtualstock's The Edge4Health e-procurement solution is helping to create an additional platform through which trusts can look for vital equipment, such as masks and gloves

Addressing the backlog

Speaking to BBH, Ed Bradley, founder and director of e-commerce company, Virtualstock, said: “The crux of the PPE issue lies in the Government’s national procurement scheme run through NHS Supply Chain, which is responsible for managing and supplying all PPE in the UK, and is sufficient in normal conditions, but finds itself overwhelmed in a crisis scenario.

“Thousands of UK-based firms have offered to make PPE, but they must all obtain a certificate of suitability from the Department of Health.

“The backlog in verifying thousands of new suppliers means that some suppliers have become impatient, and have either destocked or diverted their attention to selling in other countries.

“This has accelerated the need for an Amazon-style controlled and managed marketplace in the NHS, which means if one nominated supplier can’t fulfil orders to the NHS trusts have the option to source products from alternative suppliers.”

One solution could be Virtualstock’s The Edge4Health e-procurement platform which is delivered in conjunction with partly-government-owned NHS Shared Business Services.

The platform displays over seven million products, from PPE equipment to IT equipment, from over 5,000 suppliers, including leading manufacturers such as Medtronic, JB-Braun and Vygon.

The platform is already being used by 140 of the country’s 240 NHS trusts, with more than 2,000 NHS users having bought more than £30m worth of equipment.

Bradley said: “We are a company that has been working in retail for a lot of years and our technology is being used as a supply chain platform by big names such as John Lewis, B&Q and Argos to power their e-commerce activity and ensure visibility of stock across different locations.

The Edge4Health platform is already being used by 140 of the country’s 240 NHS trusts, with more than 2,000 NHS users having bought more than £30m worth of equipment to date

Making informed decisions

“For the last five years we have been working in the health sector and have adapted our platform to work within hospitals. We now have a rich platform of thousands of suppliers that hospitals can use like Amazon to get the products they need at a good price.”

As mentioned, key to the problems facing the health sector is that NHS Supply Chain has a monopoly on procurement activity. The Edge4Health is helping to change that.

Bradley said: “There’s an over-centralised supply chain all concentrated through one organisation, so when there was a spike in PPE orders there was limited amount of options and trusts were looking for an alternative.

“The Edge4Health presented this, offering a platform with approved suppliers and where procurement professionals could browse the entire catalogue, see images of products, and make informed decisions.

“We have lots of suppliers, many that have supplied PPE to the health sector before, but might be based in a part of the country where they have been overlooked by the NHS to date.

“The Edge4Health is about making sure trusts know exactly what is out there and where to go.

“Moving forward, we need to provide options or if something like COVID-19 happens again we will once again find ourselves in the same situation.”