The NHS Purchasing and Supplies Agency (Pasa), which has responsibility for introducing e-commerce across the NHS, had been expected simply to set standards and provide a strategic framework, leaving individual NHS trusts to procure their own e-business systems.
However, last week ministers formally approved Pasa's recommendation to adopt instead an integrated finance and e-trading system. Significantly, the Department of Health is already negotiating a national shared services contract for HR and payroll systems, and Pasa appears to be aiming to piggyback e-commerce onto the proposed national finance system.
Eric Jackson, head of e-commerce at Pasa, said there was no point in each trust reinventing the wheel on e-commerce. "The assumption is that the service should only do this once," he said.
Savings of up to 20% are anticipated on the NHS' £5.6bn annual spend on goods and services by integrating the entire NHS supply chain. "We're saying savings of 20% can be achieved," Jackson told a conference on e-health last week.
The NHS currently has almost no Internet procurement, a fragmented supply chain, high process costs and extremely variable levels of IT. More than 20 different purchase order systems are in use in hospital supplies departments.
There will be three principle components to the new NHS-wide e-commerce system: an integrated finance and e-trading system, an e-tendering system and a single electronic catalogue of suppliers. Jackson confirmed the system will be "mandatory" and that all trusts will have to replace their current order and purchase systems.
The announcement marks the latest step towards a common NHS IT infrastructure and shared support services, a policy spelt out earlier this month in the updated NHS IT strategy Building the Information Core - Implementing the NHS Plan. The timescale, set out by Jackson, for Pasa to deliver the national e-commerce system is tight. An outline business case is to be completed by March. A tender notice for a systems provider will be placed by April, with the contract to be awarded by January 2002.