Five ways NHS buyers can capture the innovation of SMEs

With innovation increasingly becoming the watchword in the public sector, the challenge facing procurement leads – particularly in the hard-hit NHS – is tapping into the savings that can be generated by incorporating new technology and healthcare products and services into their systems.

An organisational culture shift is required to bring the multi-layered public sector procurement processes common in many trusts in line with the nimble SMEs at the forefront of developing innovative solutions.

The Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) have been established to deliver a step-change in the way the NHS identifies, develops and adopts new technologies and are predicated on partnership working and collaboration between the NHS, academia, the private sector and other external partners.

One of the organisation's key roles is working to drive the adoption and the spread of innovation across all areas of healthcare provision. Helping high-tech SMEs to manoeuvre through the very complex and rigorous systems in the NHS so that they can become suppliers is a key part of the role and the AHSNs' overarching aim is to enable innovative products to spread quickly and successfully through the wider health and social care system.  

1. Communicate success
When creating new ways of working, it’s imperative that success stories are celebrated and shared. This not only helps to encourage and motivate your teams, it’s also very instructive and creates an informal best practice template for others to follow. 

Routine, high-profile reporting of the adoption of innovation and reverse procurement case studies are a critical part of keeping motivation high and informing and encouraging procurement leads and their teams to continue to innovate and develop more streamlined procurement systems.

2. Encourage close collaboration
Encouraging the development of clear lines communication and engagement between procurement teams and their clinical and technical colleagues is key to driving organisational change. This helps to ensure that the procurement operation has a clear and realistic understanding of the challenges which are facing their colleagues and the steps which need to be taken to address any hitches or snags in the process. It also allows the team to highlight successes and ensure that positive steps are encouraged and become a part of standard procedure.  In a healthcare environment, developing and nurturing closer collaboration between innovation leads and procurement teams is a key part of the wider process.

The ideal situation would be a process that takes a Trust wide view of the business case - regardless of where budgets sit or benefits are realised. This assessment should incorporate reviews of efficiencies and improved outcomes in addition to reducing costs or keeping them stable. If used across a healthcare system this process also enables clinical teams, commissioners and procurement to come together and openly discuss options for change – to encourage a broad organisational assessment and overcome budgetary silos, short term return on investment and potential loss of revenue from reduced tariff payments/ changes in the commissioning of services.

3. Engage end users and support continuous improvement
Engaging with end users, in our case, patients and health care professionals, to better inform the assessment of unmet need, identify areas in need of change and be involved in developing the solution, is a key step in improving specification and delivery. 

This additional step in the procurement process encourages new product solutions from industry and helps to drive forward improvements in the supply chain. Procurement processes should capitalise on recent changes in EU procurement law that allow for much more open discussions with suppliers in the pre-procurement phase of innovative solutions. 

It’s also key that procurement leads create the flexibility to allow for and encourage suppliers to make improvements to their products or the delivery of their services throughout the duration of contracts. Procurement leads should include pro-innovation clauses within PQQs and contracts to encourage suppliers to make improvements. Within tender documents, it is also worth requesting information from suppliers about how they manage progressive improvement within their own supply chains.

4. Bridging cultural gaps
In order to more closely align the cultural divide between SMEs and large public sector organisations it helps to put in place streamlined procurement systems that more closely resemble that of a traditional SME organisation. This could include simple changes such as creating simple, standard PQQs that can be authorised more quickly than is usually the case.

It is also good practice to ensure that PQQs aren’t creating barriers for SME through bars such as minimum financial turnover, number of products supplied etc. Instead, risk can be mitigated through other means such as creating a varied mix of suppliers, creating clear KPIs for suppliers and keeping a percentage of volume commitments over the period of the contract for innovative solutions.

These steps also help the development of processes that enable and encourage SMEs to supply direct, rather than signposting them to large approved suppliers, creating cost savings and benefiting the wider organisational culture through collaboration with innovative companies.

5. Empower your procurement team to change
A key feature of driving organisational change is to empower procurement leads to change practice and develop their own model and systems for adoption of innovation through positive challenge, supported by training and development. North West Coast AHSN has commissioned a pilot training programme focused on procurement of solutions rather than products, based on needs and desired outcomes rather than a specification.

This will co-ordinate with the work on the North West Procurement Development Agency, which develops and supports procurement leads and their organisations. Following the pilot programme a network of procurement leads will be established to share case studies and best practice to encourage peer to peer learning and change.

☛ Lorna Green is the commercial director of the North West Coast Academic Health Science Network.

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