Discontent and disappointment from NHS procurement leaders over price comparison atlas

Gurjit Degun
30 July 2014

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30 July 2014 | Gurjit Degun

Procurement directors at a number of NHS trusts have voiced their disappointment with the way the Department of Health (DH) presented data from its NHS spend tool published last week.

The NHS Procurement Atlas of Variation revealed what the DH claimed exposed "shocking inconsistencies" in prices paid by trusts for 100 items such as surgical gloves, syringes and wipes, but quickly came in for criticism from trusts with regards to the data. However, many directors told SM they supported greater transparency and would like to work in collaboration with the department.

The Health Care Supply Association’s (HCSA’s) chairman Simon Walsh, who is also head of procurement and e-commerce at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said the organisation was “surprised and disappointed not to receive formal advance notification of the Atlas issue”.

“It was frustrating as even limited input from HCSA could have avoided last week's negative feelings and in some parts genuine anger,” he told SM. “The Atlas itself is a useful and innovative tool that offers a great opportunity to improve information sharing and transparency.

“Unfortunately, the initial list of items are all from the NHS Supply Chain catalogue and in reality show the range of items/prices/brand available from trusts to select from. The analysis, when correct, primarily illuminates the efficacy of the selection decision rather than commercial failure.”

Walsh added the HCSA has called for an NHS reference group to be set up “to work with the DH to improve future Atlas information and overcome last week's challenges”.

Ali Ali, head of procurement at the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “As a concept it’s fantastic, it’s what we need. The fact that we didn’t know that we were going to be named and no data verification took place in advance, we just felt very let down.”

He added he is yet to hear from the department about his discontent, and believes trusts and the DH should be working in partnership.

John Watts, director of procurement and e-commerce at Barts Health NHS Trust, also said the data published was not “sense-checked”. “I think most procurement professionals support price transparency and measurement across the NHS but before it goes into the public domain make sure its content is right,” he said.

David Lawson, CPO at Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust (GSTT), said the DH will “need to work hard to win back confidence and credibility”. “The DH needs to engage and involve trusts far more to develop and shape current and future initiatives in a genuinely collaborative and joined up way and take advantage of the knowledge and experience within hospitals,” he said.

Denis Kelliher, head of purchasing for Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, called on the DH to “assess why there is such a wide range of prices in the NHS Supply Chain catalogue, and why that has been allowed”.

“As DH manage the NHS Supply Chain contract I would expect that they are working through why there are products that are claimed to be direct replacements with such large variations in unit cost, and how that was allowed to happen.”

In response, a DH spokeswoman said: “Lots of hospitals have told us that the Atlas will really help them drive down supply costs so they have more money to put into frontline patient care. Where concerns have been raised with us, we have responded promptly to help hospitals understand how the Atlas will assist them.”

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