Comment - The urgent need for track-and-trace capability in the NHS

Nicola Hall of Ingenica Solutions discusses what the PiP breast implant scandal and VW emissions crisis have highlighted for the healthcare sector

Nicola Hall

The recent scare over contaminated surgical implants in healthcare, as well as the VW emissions crisis, have stressed the urgent need for track-and-trace capability in the NHS. Nicola Hall, managing director at Ingenica Solutions, explains

In recent months there have been two high-profile scandals surrounding supply chain operations in very different sectors; healthcare and motoring.

As a global problem directly hitting millions of customers worldwide, the VW emissions crisis has also had huge consequences for those within its supply chain. Equally, contaminated surgical implants have affected thousands of patients across the UK.

GS1 barcoding standards now mean that products can be identified at any point in the supply chain, so in the event of a safety alert for medicines or medical devices, it can be quickly located to a specific patient and recalled

So what have these two stories, dominating the headlines, highlighted for our healthcare sector? Both failings have a serious effect on public safety, and as such provide valuable lessons for the NHS.

It once again stresses the urgent need for track-and-trace capabilities of all medical supplies and devices in order to ensure positive patient outcomes. The organisations involved are now in the process of resolving the problems, but take the VW scandal, for instance. How long would it take the NHS to complete a similar exercise in tracking the cars that had the illegal software? And how prepared is the NHS for managing a crisis like this?

For some time the NHS has been operating without the ability to quickly understand where and on whom products are being used. It isn’t until recent years that this is beginning to be addressed.

For supply chain professionals in the healthcare sector, having access to the right information is key in incidents of this type. It is the best way to avoid future failings.

Invaluable data

Data is available in large volumes, and yet the NHS does not have one source of data to work from. This creates issues in terms of an inability to extract useful management information to make the right decisions; hence product recalls in the NHS are frequently and notoriously difficult to manage.

As a data-rich environment, there remains a real lack of high-quality information, a lack of structured data; and it is this information that is crucial for an effective supply chain. Once again, this demonstrates the impact inventory management has, and its influence on GS1 barcoding, to ultimately achieve effective healthcare and patients outcomes.

This creates a new chapter for the NHS and has the potential to greatly reduce the future likelihood of failings from issues such as contaminated supplies, as well as being imperative for savings and safety

We are, however, at the threshold of what could be transformational progress in the NHS. GS1 adoption will save the sector millions of pounds and have a significant impact on patient safety. GS1 barcoding standards now mean that products can be identified at any point in the supply chain, so in the event of a safety alert for medicines or medical devices, it can be quickly located to a specific patient and recalled. This is only possible if we join up the dots and align core data collection activity using more-efficient and effective processes; hence the spiralling interest in technologies that allow this to happen. The benefits, both to the quality of patient care and the ability to properly manage the costs of delivering it is an exciting prospect for the sector.

Extracting information will help the NHS make the right decisions and track usage to patients. Not only does this help in instances of contaminated supplies; it also supports patient-line costing - the expenditure per procedure, case, and patient. For instance, understanding what is used on a patient can help us understand the longer-term outcomes. A supplier may say that their product will last 15 years, but is it really cost effective for the NHS? Currently there is no way to substantiate these claims.

Track and trace within easy reach

Significant progress has been made in terms of track and trace, and the Government has introduced new regulations. This creates a new chapter for the NHS and has the potential to greatly reduce the future likelihood of failings from issues such as contaminated supplies, as well as being imperative for savings and safety.

The majority of trusts are able to identify volumes purchased. However, the widespread issue of unstructured data means few understand where products are used, when or on which patient. Hospitals such as Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Taunton and Somerset NHS Trust, along with others, are now working towards electronically tracking medicines and devices to a specific patient. They use barcodes to manage supplies - everything from bandages and tissues to high-value medical implants, and are on course to easily access the data that records who, when, and where supplies were used. Using this approach helps hospitals avoid the lengthy delays that were experienced during the PiP breast implant and the DePuy ASR hip replacement recalls.

The NHS can certainly avoid product track-and-trace issues, and the industry’s interest in ways to address this is on the rise.

For some time the NHS has been operating without the ability to quickly understand where and on whom products are being used

The recent highly-publicised VW emissions scandal helps us shine the spotlight on healthcare and think about how supplies are currently identified in all of our hospitals.

Interestingly, the Department of Health currently recommends a system (EDC) that is unable to offer a full track-and-trace facility. So this raises the issue of whether the Government really knows the true extent and associated cost of recall management and associated patient safety in the NHS, How could the NHS actually cope with an issue the size of the horsemeat or VW scandal?

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