A collaborative effort across the NHS has resulted in children with cancer no longer having to travel to the US for a complex and expensive treatment.
Proton Beam Therapy (PBT) cancer treatment is as complex as it sounds. A 90-tonne particle accelerator called a cyclotron whips subatomic protons up to 60% of the speed of light. It then blasts the accelerated protons into the body, killing cancerous cells with pinpoint accuracy. Unlike with conventional radiotherapy, the beam of protons stops once it hits its target, causing far less collateral damage and fewer nasty side effects.
The downside? A treatment centre costs £125m. Until recently, people with cancer had to travel to the US to receive treatment. More than 1,000 patients, mostly children, have made the journey over the last decade to receive it on the NHS. But many are too ill to travel that far and have to forego the treatment entirely.
This is about to change. In April, the first ever patient received PBT on UK soil (albeit privately) and two NHS treatment centres are due to be fully operational by 2022, in Manchester and London. But until then, finding a temporary solution closer to home was vital. Surinder Kahlon, senior procurement manager at NHS Arden & GEM CSU, was tasked with finding one.
Kahlon and his team, alongside an NHS England group, embarked on a complex procurement process, completed in just eight months. What was already a challenging operation due to its specialist nature was made even tougher by the fact it was for the health service. “We’re more scrutinised than any organisation in the private sector, or indeed in the public sector,” he says. “The process had to be bulletproof.”
The team had to attract as many bidders as possible. They decided on a single stage tender process. After 13 organisations registered interest, three bids were received.
In assessing the bids, Arden & GEM enlisted clinical experts and visited the sites of potential treatment centres. These visits brought home the human importance of the project, injecting “a real passion” into the team. “Seeing the frontline service as part of the procurement process galvanised the team,” says Kahlon. “We became even more determined to make a success of the project.”
Using these site visits and cross-sector expertise, NHS Arden and GEM succeeded in appointing a supplier thousands of miles closer to home, at the Essen University Medical Centre in Germany.
The result: an estimated minimum £2m worth of savings over three years, with accommodation and travel provided for patients. “Not only have we made substantial like-for-like savings, but also efficiency savings” in bringing the treatment closer, Kahlon adds. The project also saw the team receive the award for International Procurement Project at the CIPS Supply Management Awards.
But above all, more than 20 children have so far received the crucial PBT treatment who may not have done before. Many will continue until the treatment is rolled out in the UK. “Seeing the human impact of the project really hits you,” Kahlon says. “Knowing that it’s going to benefit patients who require that service? You just can’t beat that.”
With overseas bidders from Europe, site visits were essential to verify bidder responses, particularly around equipment and technology. The procurement team developed a process that allowed equitable visits to all three bidders.
Good communication and collaboration was key. These visits came to define the project, says Kahlon, because of the skills on show from all sides.
“You had clinical experts talking to commercial experts. The interactions were fascinating. It reminds you of the sheer breadth of skills within the NHS.”
Collaboration remains as critical now the contract has been awarded, as Essen University Medical Centre will be expected to share learnings with the new UK NHS centres.