Stewart Munro, Managing Director of Pentland Medical Ltd, highlights some of the current procurement problems within the NHS and explains why this needs to change if we want to improve patient and staff safety.
In the late eighties, I attended a presentation on the future of the UK Medtech sector presented on behalf of the government by KPMG. The main message being the government’s desire for the industry to focus on research and development whilst transferring manufacturing to China!
What relevance does this have to patient safety? Fast forward some twenty years and I am presenting the case for adoption of one of our most successful unique patented patient safety products (successful global use at this point around the 5 million patient level) to one of the largest NHS trusts.
The difficulties faced by industry
The trust we presented to operates a clear policy that industry should not even provide literature on products to any clinician unless procurement permission is given. We complied with this policy and were invited in to present after an anaesthetist had highlighted that the trust had experienced patient injury from the current standard practice of using rolls of tape to secure patients' eyes during anaesthesia to protect from hazards and prevent the eyes from drying out causing potentially serious harm. Our product literature carries an endorsement from the Association of Perioperative Practice who clearly state that the practice of using tape to address these issues is “not recommended and that Eyepads fit for purpose should be used”.
The meeting is attended by a man from procurement and a Sister from the trust with many years of experience in her role. I present the product case and pass samples to the Sister. Within a minute of handling the product she dismisses the product as “expensive nonsense”! The man from procurement proclaims the session over and we part company. The anaesthetist that initiated the meeting was not present and was not allowed to take her desire to try our solution any further.
This story is reflective of not only our experience but typical of the path we and other Medtech companies encounter in attempting to introduce new innovative patented solutions to the NHS UK companies. The drive towards ever cheaper manufacturing adoption by the NHS is led by NHS supply chain, dominating the tendering market for products with multiple manufacturing sources. The NHS is now globally recognised as a procurement-driven market, focussed on reducing costs through purchasing and negotiating lower pricing. An organisation that issues “zero inflation pricing increase” policies. This can be very effective and is certainly a major driving factor in the success of the multitude of Chinese manufacturing companies supplying the NHS. A market that has produced a multitude of failed schemes for the adoption of new technologies in favour of sourcing ever cheaper, often poor quality products.
But we did not jump on that bandwagon and instead chose to continue working with the best patented technological solutions emerging. We recently had the pleasure of working with Helen Hughes and Patient Safety Learning on a webinar presenting one such product. We introduced this product over a year ago and immediately engaged with the latest NHS Accelerated Access Collaborative innovation adoption scheme. In the webinar I described how this and all of our other efforts had failed to make any serious impact other than producing great results with a small band of community health nurses.
Then COVID-19 strikes and almost overnight procurement is bypassed. There is a priority in addressing shortages of products perceived as vital in maintaining care levels in the impending increased demand due to COVID-19. This leads to the successful sale of several hundred of our units. However, when the government moves to address the issue through large scale purchase of the product, our solution is dismissed and offered no part of the contracts awarded in a process that was uncannily like the experience described above.
A culture of cost cutting and fear
Management of the NHS is an enormous undertaking. However, I would suggest that many years of focus on cost cutting has delivered a culture of fear and apathy toward the adoption of the amazing new technologies that can transform care.
The plethora of schemes for innovation adoption that we have engaged with over the years have failed, often at the outset, simply due to inadequate funding and planning. During this period industry has also had to bear the substantial increased costs of product and staff regulatory changes. When I engage with some of these schemes, I cannot understand why there are so many companies in the mix pitching products and services that have nothing to do with healthcare, but offer instead procurement or management “more efficient management” tools! Some trusts appear to be more concerned with this aspect than the actual delivery of healthcare. One trust insists that we supply our products through a third-party purchase company because the product they buy is not listed on NHS supply chain. They have now ceased to order after the third-party supplier entered administration, owing us several thousand pounds!
In November we will launch a new patented product with patient safety benefits, invented by two operating department practitioners (OPDs) in Liverpool. We will manufacture the product in the UK and manage global marketing from the UK. However, we are currently focused on marketing the product overseas; engaging with NHS procurement is not a priority. I know other companies have that same view.
It’s recognised that efficient procurement is an important element of NHS management, largely developed from the political direction in the Eighties on cheaper globalised manufacturing policies. Unfortunately, whilst to some degree it has been very successful in cutting costs, patient and staff safety has on occasion been compromised. There is now a culture of cost cutting with procurement completely focused on this.
Call for action
NHS adoption of new beneficial technologies is woefully inadequate and remains largely under the control of procurement services often disinterested in it and unqualified to manage it. For patient and staff safety to benefit, I would like to see:
- Simplified fast-tracked product assessment procedures managed by appropriately qualified staff.
- The removal of products and services designed for healthcare management from the assessment of products directly involved in improving healthcare outcomes.
Our current structures are simply not fit for this purpose.