With continuing pressure on hospitals to deliver high quality services whilst saving costs, it has never been more important for hospitals and commercial companies to work together effectively and efficiently. However, in our recent survey of senior NHS procurement professionals, 100% said they encounter situations where commercial visitors side-step their procurement policies.

Survey summary:

  • 100% experience commercial visitors arriving without appointments
  • 100% encountered commercial visitors side-stepping procurement
  • 95% had implemented a commercial visitor policy – a 24% rise
  • 8% knew how many commercial visitors were in their hospital at any one time

The clinical support, product innovation and training that commercial companies bring can be crucial to the delivery of patient services. Indeed, the majority of commercial partners have established strong, long-term relationships with hospitals, working collaboratively to support their goals. But our survey suggests that a number of commercial visitors are slipping through the net.

Our survey, conducted at the annual conference of senior procurement professionals’ organisation the HCSA (Health Care Supply Association), also found that 100% of respondents experienced commercial visitors accessing their hospital without appointments, which can have a particular impact on clinical time. Judith Willis, Deputy Head of Procurement at NHS Tayside, found this was a problem at her facility (before our service was implemented), observing that staff often “feel obliged to meet with those commercial visitors who turn up unannounced…. resulting in diary management challenges and distractions from patient care”.

In addition to impacting on clinical time, and of course potentially posing risks to safety and security, unauthorised visitor activity can also contribute to ‘off-catalogue’ product purchases and pricing variation. In a similar survey that we conducted recently amongst finance directors at the HFMA (Healthcare Financial Management Association) annual conference, 86% reported that budgets were affected by unsanctioned product purchases and pricing disparity.

The challenge of trying to manage the often hundreds of commercial companies targeting hospitals is hardly new, and of course many hospitals have been addressing it. Indeed, our survey revealed that 95% had implemented a commercial visitor policy, which compares to 71% in a similar survey we conducted in 2015, representing an increase of 24%.

Although a commercial visitor policy is undoubtedly an important step in communicating both policy and safety requirements to visitors, the fact that the majority of procurement managers surveyed still experienced commercial visitors bypassing their procurement policies, suggests that a policy alone isn’t enough.

Its widely recognised – and was also a key theme at the HCSA conference where this survey took place – that data is essential. Many hospitals find that knowing who is visiting their facilities, who they are visiting and how often, can afford valuable insight and also gives the opportunity to spot trends and action them. For example, at the University Hospitals of Leicester, Head of Operations Phil Walmsley, found, “The reporting features are starting to show the pressure areas and who does and does not want to play. It is a red flag to those companies who don’t share the best practice standards required of our suppliers”.

Our survey also asked about the awareness of commercial visitor activity on site. Amongst our respondents, 8% knew how many commercial visitors were in their hospital at any one time. Perhaps this reflects the challenges procurement teams face in supporting an open-access hospital facility whilst managing the activity of commercial company visitors on site.

Also, there may be concerns about increasing the administrative burden on reception staff to record the activity of commercial visitors, when their focus – quite rightly – is on patient care. However, implementing a commercial visitor management service could not only provide valuable information but can also reduce hospital time. We often find that hospitals are already recording commercial visitors manually (e.g. in a visitors’ book) and conducting the checks necessary for visitors accessing sensitive areas, such as theatres (i.e. checking insurance, training, immunisations), for what can be hundreds of visitors per month. By implementing a managed service, like SEC3URE, all of this is done before the visitor reaches the hospital, and they simply pick up a badge.

So, although our survey indicates that procurement teams still encounter commercial visitors circumventing their policies, it’s important to remember that the majority of commercial companies are valued partners. Often, just a minority can cause issues –  it’s just that these few can be a challenge for procurement and finance teams.

By Azadar Shah

About the survey

The survey was conducted at the annual conference of the HCSA (Health Care Supply Association) in November 2016.

The survey respondents were mostly senior procurement professionals of UK Trusts. Job roles included: Head of Procurement, Procurement Business Manager, Senior Category Manager and Business Support Manager.