Many smaller suppliers will be exhibiting at E-Health Insider Live ‘09. Fiona Barr finds out how they are surviving in the current economic climate and how they see the future.

Surviving and thriving in healthcare IT has been a tough job for smaller suppliers over the last seven years; and the next seven are not looking that much easier.

Analysts predict an unprecedented financial freeze for the NHS, starting in 2011. Vin Murria, chief executive of ACS, which last year bought out-of-hours software supplier Adastra, has few illusions about the current economic climate. “I’m certainly expecting that there will be healthcare cuts regardless of who is in government,” she says.

Murria anticipates that cuts will come as early as next year, but says it’s a case of ‘so far so good’ for ACS, with the company focusing relentlessly on its messages of delivering returns on investment and cost efficiencies for NHS customers.

Great ideas, no funding

Pushing the message that investment in IT can produce productivity – and quality – gains is familiar territory for NHS suppliers. Yet there’s no doubt that companies outside the National Programme for IT have found market conditions difficult.

Last week, it emerged that maternity systems supplier EuroKing Miracle faces an action by HM Revenue and Customs to wind it up. Although it may be bought by another supplier, it is just one in a string of companies to face difficulties in the NPfIT years.

Glen Griffiths, chief executive officer of InteractivHealth, which employs web 2.0 technologies in its Practice Portal Builder for practices, says that like other companies he is aware of he is finding conditions tough.

He adds: “The area we are trying to serve is patient-focused services, which hasn’t really had a place in the national plan outside of the huge amount invested in NHS Choices. So finding available budgets for the work that we do is a real challenge.”

Griffiths argues that award-winning sites like the one IH created in conjunction with Dr Amir Hannan at Thornley House Medical Centre in Hyde, Cheshire, deliver exactly the kind of patient empowerment that many in the health service pay lip service to.

In particular, he adds, they can support of the management of long term conditions and self care in general. Yet much of the NHS seems unprepared to back them with funding.

Like others, Griffiths has also been frustrated by changing organisational structures in the NHS. Interest can be lost as soon as personnel change – and suppliers have to start from the beginning with a new set of people.

Griffiths does hold out hope that the forthcoming election could bring a new approach if the Conservatives are successful. He says David Cameron’s promise of increased ‘patient power’ is helping to reset the agenda.

“Cameron’s general tenet is that he will support a decentralised approach, which we believe is now widely regarded as the best approach, and one that would suit us.”

General election ahead

The Conservatives’ pledge to renegotiate the two remaining local service provider contracts with BT and CSC and to bring in a wider choice of accredited systems through a framework catalogue also has the potential to offer a better marketplace for smaller IT system suppliers.

However, NHS Connecting for Health’s own attempts to introduce a catalogue, the Additional Supply Capability and Capacity (ASCC) framework, has not been a startling success. This week, the agency made moves to revive it in the South (although some small suppliers have pointed out that if they are not on the ASSC this means they effectively be frozen out of another tranche of business).

Chris Coyne, sales and marketing director for decision support specialists Plain Healthcare, says the company has four agreements on the framework, but has had very little business from it as yet. However, he intends to take part in the Southern procurement process.

Coyne says that, away from the framework, Plain Healthcare is seeing a growth in its sales and is picking up new business. He attributes this to the business efficiencies that decision support software can offer the health service and service providers.

Plain Healthcare’s traditional customers in out-of-hours services have been added to by Equitable Access Centres and other nurse-led clinics. Prisons are also emerging as a new market for the company’s software.

Coyne remains cautiously optimistic about a change of government. He says “I’ve recently heard the number two at the DH speaking and I’ve heard Andrew Lansley (the shadow health secretary).

“The difference between the two seems to be local accountability and local decision making, which for smaller businesses like ours is a good thing as they are more likely to see the benefits and make faster decisions.’

Partnership working

Phil Young, director of document management software suppliers PCTI Solutions, also believes that the future will hold opportunities for SME software vendors that could be enhanced by a change of government or a change of strategy.

Young says the national programme years have been a time of growth for PCTI, increasing both the number of practices and the scope of software and services delivered.

He adds: “It has not had a direct negative impact on our business, but we do see that it has changed the market with the number of suppliers we interface and collaborate with in primary care.”

Collaboration and indeed consolidation are likely to both feature in the future, with ACS for one clear about its strategy to acquire more primary care IT companies. PCTI itself has just announced a new partnership with digital dictation software supplier SRC and others are also looking to work closely together.

Colin Hampton, managing director of bar coding and data capture firm QuickTrace identifies collaboration as a useful strategy for the future and says his business has already won additional work through alliances with other suppliers that would otherwise not have come its way.

With or without collaboration, however, and whatever the economic and political landscape, all the suppliers say that demonstrating value for money will remain their most important selling point in the months ahead.


9-10 November 2009, The ICC Birmingham

E-Health Insider Live ’09 is the essential, two day exhibition and conference at The ICC in Birmingham. ore than 60 exhibitors are booked for the exhibition, which also features a free best practice showcase.

The exciting conference programme, whose principal sponsor is BT, has four streams exploring “the big picture” on healthcare IM&T, benefits realisation, digital patient care and healthcare interoperability.

And there’s no need to be stuck in your hotel overnight, because E-Health Insider has organised a great comedy night at Jongleurs, which should be a fantastic entertainment and networking opportunity. Register now.