Making healthcare procurement easier

by Alex Walter: Managing Partner and O2 public sector champion – Healthcare

While we wait for the publication of the Carter Review into the operational productivity of the NHS, I was interested to see last week that the HSJ reported that the review will say that most NHS trusts ‘are unaware of what they buy, what the quantities are or the prices they pay’. The story has, to date, attracted two comments on the publication’s site, both of which had a dig at ‘unaccountable’ managers. As open targets go, NHS managers wasting cash through poor management of supplier contracts is an easy one.

But it can also be massively unfair.

Public sector procurement isn’t straightforward. In the last 11 years of working with the public sector I’ve seen that close up, and have been struck by the dedication of the people whose job it is to deliver best value services despite having to deal with complex situations and processes and, of course, the politics of it all. I admire the fact that they are trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. Recognising that fact and doing something to simplify their lives (and so help them deliver services) is also the main driver of my role as an O2 public sector champion. And we, as responsible suppliers into the public sector, need to take a lead.

When procurement is done well, fantastic value is offered by the supplier and realised by trusts, but it can be genuinely challenging to follow the guidelines and deliver the best value.

Why? Because a supplier has to get under the skin of what the underlying business outcomes and user scenarios should be. Without it, solutions are often over-engineered to de-risk every scenario or, worse, under-engineered, leaving a trust open to expensive change requests mid-contract. We also find that many of our own suppliers operate short-term pricing offers that are only available at certain times. And that can make it difficult for us to offer these savings on to public sector organisations, as their procurement calendars often do not align with these offers.

So how can this work better?

Ongoing and open communication is key. As is starting to talk several months before a formal procurement exercise. By beginning discussions early, a huge amount of insight and expertise can be gathered prior to a formal exercise, which makes the process quicker and, in turn, helps trusts benefit from those short-term savings.

Within my team we have an internal mandate that we always follow: our customers always want to stay with us because we understand their world and do the right thing. Where trusts engage with us actively – existing customers or otherwise – we give objective and subjective guidance, and make it clear which is which.

One of the things I’m concentrating on at the moment is how we can help the sector integrate health and social care. Looking at what people on the ground actually want, and how technology can help. A great example of that is a trial we’re running that uses sensors in the homes of patients to allow care to be delivered in the home for as long and efficiently as possible. If they leave their front door open, for example, a sensor alerts a carer or family member of the drop in temperature – and they can then visit and check up on the patient. And that’s one way we want to help hospitals free up beds.

But back to Carter. The HSJ also reports that the review will call on trusts to invest in electronic catalogues to simplify procurement. And having just done something similar ourselves, he’s definitely on the right track there. Our online public sector catalogue has put everything we offer to the sector in one place: solutions, prices, case studies and more.

In the meantime, I’m always happy to talk about how trusts can get more out of the procurement process in more detail and am interested to learn more about the specific challenges they face, so if you work for a trust do feel free to contact me directly on 07786 333444.