To meet increasing demand the NHS must also transform supply

16 July 2018

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Headlines attest to the fact that the pressures on the NHS are considerable and growing. To try and arrest some of the pressures on acute settings, it’s vital that moves to transfer care to community-based settings succeed. As that transition progresses, the attention on clinical considerations is understandable and necessary. But it’s also important that the design and operation of the services and functions underpinning effective care are not overlooked.

Supply chain is particularly critical. If the NHS does not develop effective and efficient supply chain capabilities alongside clinical services there are likely to be a number of unwelcome consequences. The cost burden will rise. Time that community health workers should be devoting to patients will be deflected to administration. And waste will be created through poor control of consumption of goods. Making the supply chain more efficient is hard enough within the relatively controlled environment of the hospital. But we’re still seeing leading-edge clinical services developing alongside supply chain capabilities that are nowhere near as advanced to support the clinical service delivery. The challenge of moving support beyond the confines of the hospital simply compounds the problem.

So what should happen next? Put simply, if community-based care is going to succeed it will have to be accompanied by new thinking and initiatives that can deliver a more efficient and effective supply chain. Increasing supply chain efficiencies will enable health and social care services in the community to deliver quality patient care with their existing staff while also helping to address demand and financial challenges.

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New digital capabilities will become increasingly imperative to achieve all this. That means, for example, deploying point of use data tracking and field force management to free nurses from hours of administrative tasks and enabling them instead to focus on clinical activity.  A more strategic view of the entire supply chain, delivered through a ‘control tower’ approach can tighten management control and ensure that the right levers are in place to address logistic and inventory challenges and deliver savings. The efficiency, accuracy and timeliness of provision all have to be as pinpoint as possible in order to reduce the waste that will otherwise inevitably occur.

For inspiration, healthcare can look to plenty of other industries that have adopted technologies that have proven their worth in delivering significant savings and a better experience to customers. Retailers, utilities and services sectors have all adopted new digital approaches and technologies that have streamlined their supply chain operations, increasing their accuracy, timeliness and costs.  So what could some of those look like in community healthcare? Patients could, for example, be equipped with apps that record their consumption of medication and other products. Not only would these ensure that individual patients are following their prescribed regimen, the data generated could also feedback into improving efficiency and overall health outcomes. Providing nurses and other community health workers with greater control and visibility of the medical supplies despatched to individual patients would also help reduce waste and ensure that patients receive what they need, when they need it while avoiding the oversupply that is common today.

Overall, however, the development of a more strategic approach to supply chain design and operation is essential. The transition from acute to community settings must of course prioritise the delivery of clinical services. But how those services are resourced and supported must be moved up the agenda. Failure to do so is likely to see costs continuing to grow, and pressure on the NHS rise remorselessly. You can find out more by reading our latest report 'Taking back control: Bringing technology to direct engagement'.