Cracking the Code in the NHS

In a recent article published by the HFMA, Seamus Ward discusses the ongoing transition to a common barcode system by the NHS in England. In the extracts from the article below, Ward examines some of the benefits of adopting GS1 standards.

Lack of standardisation means it’s difficult to collect accurate information – on cost and usage, for example – which makes price comparison, or even when to order new stock, challenging. With no single system, it is no wonder that health service procurement has yet to embrace barcodes with the same gusto as its sister functions in supermarket chains.

However, standardised NHS barcodes are on their way following the launch of the Department of Health’s e-procurement strategy last year. As well as standard barcodes for supplies, codes – linked to NHS numbers – could be added to inpatient wristbands as a matter of course.

The strategy opted for the GS1 standard (combined with a messaging standard known as PEPPOL).

The GS1 standards are overseen by a global, not-for-profit organisation, also known as GS1, which is working closely with the Department, trusts, suppliers and other stakeholders – such as the royal colleges  – to smooth the adoption of its standard.

According to GS1, by mid-March more than three-quarters of trusts had appointed management leads. 

Glen Hodgson, head of healthcare at GS1 UK, says the Department asked each nominee to carry out a self-assessment to ensure they were right for the job. And he points out that many GS1 leads are finance directors, chief information officers and, occasionally, medical directors.

Mr Hodgson says the standards offer three main benefits. They improve patient safety, deliver stronger regulatory compliance and lead to operational efficiencies.

‘GS1 standards can help the NHS save thousands of lives and millions of pounds,’ he says. ‘It provides the foundation for integrated patient care, enabling global unique identification, whether it’s of a person, product or place. This information is valuable as it allows you to tie up every activity in the hospital, particularly around the patient journey – everything that happens to that patient and who did it.’

NHS Shared Business Services solutions consultant Dan Godfrey agrees. He says GS1 and PEPPOL messaging standards are significant steps in transforming NHS procurement, leading to improvements in patient safety and cost savings.  

‘The use of key procurement standards, including the adoption of GS1 and PEPPOL messaging standards, will enable NHS organisations to better manage their non-pay spend,’ he says. ‘The quality of data will be much improved and will enable trusts to benchmark their purchases against buying trends across the whole landscape. This in turn will support the drive towards achieving not just cost savings, but deriving better value when it comes to procuring non-pay items.’

Mr Hodgson continues:

‘For procurement activities alone, the adoption of GS1 standards in a 600-bed trust would produce savings of £3m-£5m a year – that is directly from the McKinsey Strength in unity report [about the potential benefits of global healthcare standards]. There are clear benefits in reduced inventory, supply chain visibility – delivering certainty of what you have and where – product safety recall and reducing the transactional costs of supplies.’

GS1 standards could also help trusts comply with forthcoming legislation – this includes the introduction of unique device identification in the wake of the PIP breast implants scandal.

Encouraging uptake

Mr Hodgson says the challenge is to convince both trusts and suppliers of the benefits of GS1. The use of a single barcode system will enable the Department to create a single catalogue of NHS supplies. If a product offered by an alternative supplier – perhaps at a lower price – is the same as the product that is normally purchased, they will have the same barcode, allowing trust procurement teams to compare like with like.

‘This single version of the truth will mean that everyone gets the same information about their products. It will reduce the cost of transactions because we will know what product has been delivered, where and at what time. At the moment, a lot of effort is spent chasing proof of delivery.’

Need for standards

Nicola Hall, managing director of Ingenica Solutions, which provides GS1 compliant inventory management solutions, says that without standardisation it is impossible for trusts to understand where their procurement budgets are being spent.

GS1 adoption is a huge change management programme, she adds. ‘The big challenge is delivering the strategy. Everyone is quite frustrated about how slowly it is moving forward. Perhaps with the financial imperative, it should be moving much quicker than it is.’

Mr Hodgson is pragmatic about implementation. While a number of trusts will lead the way, he believes many others will be surprised about how much of the equipment and systems needed are already in place. Very few will be starting from scratch.

GS1 barcoding is coming and should help the NHS deliver many of its objectives, including better patient safety and efficiency savings. But the message is clear: this is a medium-term project. 

These extracts have been taken from the article "Cracking the code", written by Seamus Ward and published by the HFMA in April 2015. To read the full article, click here.