Why value-based procurement is key to cutting costs and improving outcomes: learning from Lincolnshire


Alison Wileman is a Market Access Specialist – Continence at health and hygiene product provider, Essity, Specialist Nurse at Bladder and Bowel UK, and Trustee at ERIC, The Children’s Bowel and Bladder Charity. She is also former chair of the Royal College of Nursing’s Bladder and Bowel Forum.

For as long as universal healthcare has existed in Britain, the debate between the cost and quality of care has simmered – and at times – raged on.

Depending on how well the government of the day has balanced the books, the needle would often oscillate between cost-cutting measures for a cash-strapped services – in which quality of care is inevitably among the first casualties – or a healthier healthcare system where positive patient outcomes are prioritised.

But, as the NHS continues to suffer unprecedented pressures in the wake of the global pandemic and systemic shortages in resources and capacity, it’s clear, at present, where the needle is firmly pointed.

And while the crisis in our healthcare system undoubtedly demands a degree of money-saving measures, there does often exist a false economy in this equation which needlessly sacrifices patient outcomes only to return a higher bill for the taxpayer.

Redefining ‘value’

Take the endemic issue of incontinence, for example, which affects an estimated 14 million people in the UK today. A groundbreaking pilot conducted at care homes by the Lincolnshire Community Health Services (LCHS) in partnership with global hygiene and health company, Essity, revealed that ‘the NHS is leaking more than half a billion a year through substandard incontinence care’.

At the crux of the eight-week study was the crucial finding that the cheaper, blanket provision of generic absorbent pads – chosen on their low upfront cost and prescribed en masse to manage incontinence – resulted in a higher overall cost of care than more premium, yet clinically more appropriate, products.

This was because, as researchers found, patients using so-called “cost-effective” pads were far more likely on average to suffer up to 2.5 leakages per day, requiring the use of more products, and in turn – a greater time demand on typically overstretched carers and community nursing teams to replace patients’ pads, laundry of bedding and clothes, as well as other sanitising costs.

By contrast, continence pads prescribed based on an individual assessment of patient need, while generally resulted in the use of more expensive products, delivered a drastic reduction in overall service spend across participating care homes – bringing the average cost of daily care down from £15.33 to £6.68 per patient. Through appropriately prescribed products, patients experienced an average of just 0.5 leakages per day, which significantly reduced carer time and associated costs.

Equally important were the significant health improvements experienced by patients. The pronounced reduction in leakages had the welcome effect of a decrease in urinary tract infections, falls and hospital admissions linked to urinary urgency, as well as poor fluid intake that typically afflicts elderly patients with continence challenges. Quality of life was also enhanced, as fewer leakages led to an 18 per cent increase in patient self-toileting.

Delivering long-term value

This plethora of positive patient outcomes as a result of appropriately prescribed pads also, unsurprisingly, translated into greater carer satisfaction. Across several core functions, including ease of product application and removal, and whether the pad helped avoid unnecessary patient moving, the pilot’s core aim to replace cheaper products with more clinically appropriate pads saw a surge in satisfaction scores among carers.

This approach, modelled on the principles of ‘value-based procurement’, is key to understanding the resounding success in cutting costs and improving patient outcomes across participating care homes in Lincolnshire. By centring patient needs and considering the overall cost of care across the patient pathway – as opposed to the procurement orthodoxy’s obsession with the lowest possible price tag – services can significantly reduce outlays in a budgetary crunch. And, critically, not only does the typical trade-off between costs and patient care disappear entirely – but the latter is in effect considerably improved.

With more than 160,000 people in the UK with continence challenges living in care and nursing homes, it is vital that the instructional lessons from Lincolnshire are learned, generalised and adapted across the country.

While the government has committed to the adoption of value-based procurement across the health and care system, in reality, uptake by purchasing and procurement managers and individual integrated care systems has been far too sluggish, and at the continued expense of patients.

And while news of government’s further exploration of value-based procurement for continence care is welcome, more must be done practically to accelerate the institutional shift towards a practice that prioritises patient care and outcomes as well as service costs.

Further clear and consistent guidance from the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS England would no doubt strengthen this strategic steer. While at the granular level, reform of the NHS procurement framework to prioritise patient outcomes and the overall cost of care would supercharge the transition.

Lincolnshire’s pilot has proven beyond doubt that a value-based procurement approach to continence care delivers for patients and services. It’s crucial now that the wider health and care system follows the evidence and changes for good the way continence care is provided across the country.