The NHS must adopt modern enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to make better use of its capacity and resources if it is to cope with steadily rising levels of demand, leading IT vendors have warned.

Hugo Schellens, general manager of Belgium bookings systems firm Ultragenda, said that the main problem facing the NHS was the gap between supply and demand for health services.

"Up to 40% of (the NHS’s) resources are wasted due to poor utilization," said Schellens.

Speaking at a Newchurch-organised press round table last week, Schellens said the problem presented the NHS with a simple choice: "To address this you have two choices: increased capacity or better resource utilization".

He said that the problem of waste and poor resource planning was endemic to European healthcare systems. But unlike other European states, the NHS does not have sufficient surplus capacity, to offset the high degree of waste inherent in the current system.

"We have very inefficient systems in Europe, but have enough capacity to cope with this inefficiency, you don’t."

Many industries, from retail, manufacturing and financial services have implemented ERP systems over the past 15 years.

ERP systems, supplied by vendors such as SAP, are designed to ensure that an enterprises’ human and physical resources are allocated and utilized to maximum efficiency. Effective implementations of ERP systems involve major organisational change.

Schellens acknowledged that systems designed for other industries rarely work well in the NHS, but said the service had no choice and urged NHS leaders to examine the potential of ERP in health.

"Every SAP implementation is painful, but at the end of the day organisations can’t do without them," he added.

Health is complex, and it will be introducing ERP will be difficult, he admitted. "But there is no alternative".

Kingsley Manning, chief executive of Newchurch, added that NHS IM&T investments had to be seen as an investment to save money and deliver increases in productivity rather than window dressing. "At the moment the Government’s assumption is that IM&T investment is needed as it will help public perception of the service."

Schellens believes that the NHS should begin on those areas that will deliver early wins such as booked admissions systems – the field that Ultragenda specialises in.

He adds that past under-investment in IT and the advent of low-cost, web-based technologies, particularly XML, now provides the NHS with a "unique opportunity" to leap-frog a generation of technology.

Commenting on the development of booked admissions systems in the NHS, Schellens said that there is currently an over-emphasis on GP booking systems. "Try to get hospital booking first," he advised.