Bright ideas from the NHS can earn hospitals billions

MUCH of the debate – and emotion – that surrounded the passage of the Health and Social Care Act focused on the extent to which the private sector should be allowed to compete to provide services to the NHS. It is a good question, and the public will benefit from some elements of additional competition that provide the NHS with access to new expertise, new thinking and pressure on prices.

But there has been almost no attention paid to an equally important issue – one which could generate significant benefits for taxpayers as well as support innovation and excellence in patient care. The NHS needs a strategy to commercialise some of its services and products and deliver benefits to the rest of the healthcare sector as well. At stake is potentially billions of pounds of value for the taxpayer, plus the opportunity to drive further improvements in care.

This matters even more at a time of reform and retrenchment within the service. The NHS is being asked to save around £20bn over the next few years in order to continue to meet rising demand and costs. There is an overwhelming business case for the NHS to set about realising the full revenue benefits of its own creativity. We encourage the BBC to do this in order to support the payers of the licence fee; it makes just as much sense to free up the NHS to do the same.

Innovation hubs within the NHS already work hard to spread good ideas and develop them for use within the NHS. Our proposal is that they should also be encouraged to exploit them beyond the NHS and beyond the UK.

One example, already underway, involves the development and use of business intelligence systems for healthcare. PwC has been working with one of the country’s top hospitals on helping clinicians to plan ahead and also equipping managers to focus on productivity, safety, quality and cost. A joint team has enabled the hospital to deliver the technology to the wider healthcare market, including other NHS trusts but also the private sector at home and abroad.

The NHS could look further. Services around return to work help are one good example. There will always be limits to how much the taxpayer is prepared to fund, yet there is a massive public and economic interest is making sure that these services exist. The NHS has the expertise; it should be encouraged to look beyond the taxpayer for funders, including private sector employers.

Some might see this suggestion as an attack on the fundamental ethos of the NHS. They would be wrong. In the 21st century, supporters of the NHS should want to see greater co-operation with the private sector and a bolder approach to seeking new sources of revenue. The taxpayer could gain, and patients definitely will.

Alan Leaman (@Alan_Leaman_MCA) is chief executive of the MCA. The NHS – a prescription for the 21st century is at www.mca.org.uk/node/1073