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Introduction of bar codes will save NHS millions

13th June 2011

A new system to tackle variation in how much NHS hospitals pay for products was announced by Health Minister Simon Burns.

Some hospitals are currently paying nearly three times as much as others for the same products like surgical gloves and stents. Introducing a fairer and more transparent bar code system will lead to significant savings for the NHS in a market which currently costs it up to £6 billion annually.

Currently there are a multitude of systems and approaches for procurement and for identifying products used by the NHS resulting in a lack of consistent information. For the first time standard ‘GS-1’ bar codes on products will be used across the NHS making it easier to track and compare purchases.

It also has great potential to improve patient safety. Bar coding systems have been shown to reduce medication errors, the risk of wrong-site surgery and the effective tracking and tracing of surgical instruments, equipment and other devices to improve record keeping and reduce error, malfunction and contamination.

The use of a single bar code system across the retail sector is what makes supermarket price comparison websites, which help shoppers save money on their groceries, possible.

Simon Burns said:

“The NHS cannot afford to continue paying different prices for the same products. By simply using bar codes, NHS procurement will become more efficient as organisations can see how much they are paying for products compared to others. It’s a simple idea that could save the NHS millions.

"Most importantly this is a vital opportunity to save money for reinvestment in front-line care at a time when the NHS needs to make efficiency savings.

“The NHS has enormous buying power if it works consistently and GS-1 bar coding is a key foundation block to improve it.”

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust is already pioneering the use of bar coding and managed to save more than £500,000 in the first year. By scanning bar codes as equipment is used on wards, the system can track available stocks and forecast future orders. This means that the Trust no longer needs to ensure that surplus stock is available in case they run out – the system tells them exactly how much equipment they have in stock in real time so orders are more accurate.

Graham Medwell, Information Manager – Supplies Department at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said:

“Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust fully supports the Department of Health’s recommendations that the GS-1 bar coding system should be adopted throughout the NHS and we have been working closely with GS-1 UK to ensure that we meet these requirements.

“Since adopting the GS-1 standards there have been real improvements in stock control with levels available to view in real time. This has led to significant efficiency savings and improved productivity.”

Ministers are seeking the support and cooperation of businesses supplying the NHS to increasingly identify and label their products with GS-1 bar codes, although voluntary, adoption and use will benefit both suppliers and the NHS.

Adoption and use of the system benefits both suppliers and the NHS alike. As is already the case in the retail sector, having the right bar code will become essential for suppliers who wish to operate in the UK health market.

The Department of Health will now run a central procurement of GS-1 bar coding systems for the NHS to allow Trusts to use bar coding. This means all NHS Trusts can take part in the same procurement, helping them to choose the right system and saving them the costs of running their own procurement exercise.

The expectation is that all products should be identifiable by or carry GS-1 bar codes by the end of 2012.

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