The big question in the health service is, where can the NHS make savings without compromising patient care? GS1 UK health sector manager Roger Lamb highlights examples where simple technology is reducing drug and stock wastage

In April, delegates at the Royal College of Nursing conference in Liverpool highlighted the growing issue of drug wastage within the NHS. According to frontline nurses, millions of pounds are being wasted on unused medicines as patients continue to collect their repeat prescriptions even if they’re no longer using them.

Nurses described seeing cupboards full of out-of-date medicines in patients’ homes. Figures from the Department of Health suggest that almost £400m of medicines are wasted each year in the UK.

Using 2D barcodes, the French health and safety agency (AFSSAPS) recently established a new standard designed to improve the traceability of medicines. The UK is about to follow suit with a new government backed group. 2D barcodes have been shown to minimise waste in the retail sector. They reduce duplication and over-stocking of supplies, and allow surplus stocks to be shared between departments and hospitals.  

Wythenshawe Hospital is already using GS1 bar codes to track and trace surgical instrument trays, which has enabled staff to store historical information on individual items electronically. This information can be accessed easily in the event of a recall procedure. The tracking system also ensures that the right trays are returned to the correct hospital department. A similar system could be employed to track prescription medicines.

Similar problems have been found in the way the NHS manages stock. In February the National Audit Offices discovered that NHS hospitals have been wasting £500m a year overpaying for basic supplies, ranging from paper stocks to replacement hip joints. According to its research NHS organisations are paying hugely different prices, with many paying 50 per cent more than others for the same supplies. Trusts are also buying too many types of the same product. Some bought 21 types of A4 paper, 652 types of medical glove and 1,751 different cannulas.  

Research conducted last year with frontline doctors and nurses found that, in addition to overpaying for supplies, many hospitals struggle to locate existing equipment (such as wheelchairs and diagnostic equipment), medicines and perhaps most worryingly, patient records. 

According to the GS1 UK Healthcare Report, 23 days per year (per nurse) and £1bn of NHS wages are spent searching for medical items that could be located instantly by using basic technology. The same report found that over 20,000 doctors spend an hour a day waiting for patient information, with over 4,000 waiting for more than four hours.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals has been working with GS1 UK to dramatically improve its stock control system. The trust implemented an automated system which reduced stock levels by over £500,000 while improving the service level to 98 per cent in three years. This has released significant nursing time from routine stock matters to direct patient care and improved the hospital’s efficiency. Leeds identifies 3,000 medical items including consumables and implanted products using GS1 UK bar codes which are scanned at 270 stocking points throughout the hospital. 

The use of GS1 standardised bar codes and RFID technology has been shown to reduce errors caused by transcription and manual data entry processes, improve the “track and trace” process for locating medicines and medical items, improve the quality of patient care and prevent counterfeit medication entering the NHS supply chain.

In turn, from an operational perspective, there are real efficiency gains including less paperwork, reduced manual processes, better stock management, reduced stock wastage and time savings from access to more accurate and standardised information. This means that doctors and nurses can spend less time on administration, and more time with their patients. 

While the challenge to reduce costs is a tough one, these examples show how basic technology and trusted data can be used without compromising patient care or safety. In an era where the public sector is being asked to save money, tackling drug and stock wastage issues could be a cheap way for the NHS to make big savings.