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Helping to Pandemic-Proof the UK’s National Health Service Supply Chain

March 29, 2021
The University of Sheffield and Vamstar join forces to help mitigate future supply chain interruptions like the ones the world has experienced during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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With the global pandemic impacting the world’s access to essential products and services, organizations worldwide are examining some of the most severe shortages, looking for root causes, and coming up with new plans of action for mitigating these challenges ahead of the next potential disruption.

In the UK, scientists at the University of Sheffield are in the midst of a new project centered on developing “risk profiles” for National Health Service (NHS) suppliers. The goal is to reduce the risk of future shortages of essential products and services during times of national crises.

Putting Technology to Work

According to a University of Sheffield press release, many health and social care organizations reported having trouble procuring stocks of essential items to keep their staff safe during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the issue, its scientists have created natural language processing (NLP) methods that make supplier information more accessible to NHS staff.

The school says the system may help the NHS access a wider market of suppliers while also supporting procurement teams as they seek out reliable suppliers during post-COVID-19 recovery. “A platform to help the NHS order essential supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) from low-risk suppliers,” the University said in the press release, “could ease future shortages like those experienced in the first wave of the pandemic.”

The University said instant access to risk to supplier data and risk profiles will help the NHS respond faster to the needs of its staff and access a wider supplier market, which will also include expanded access to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). “The marketplace will support the procurement of PPE and provide access to suppliers of healthcare-related products, goods, consumables, services and outsourcing resources,” it added.

Real-Time Ratings and Supplier Selection

For this new project, University of Sheffield researchers are working with healthcare marketplace Vamstar. Together, they’re developing a data-driven platform that can analyze NHS and global procurement data from previous supply contracts. This, in turn, will help NHS buyers better evaluate the credibility and capability of suppliers to fulfill their orders.

“Overreliance on a few healthcare suppliers and an increase in global demand contributed to the heavy shortages of PPE, essential equipment and pharmaceuticals within the NHS throughout the beginning of the pandemic in the UK,” the University of Sheffield said in the release.

“The platform will give a real-time risk-rating to each supplier, including information about the goods and services they supply, the quality and their history of working with the NHS and other EU hospitals,” it continued, noting that the project will help diversify the NHS supply base and reduce the overall risk of the organization purchasing from companies that are unable to fulfill an order and/or receiving substandard goods.

Evaluating Supplier Capacity and Credibility

According to the press release, scientists from the University of Sheffield Information School are developing the NLP methods for automated reading and extraction of data from large amounts of contract tender data held by the NHS and other European healthcare providers.

The scientists will then work with Vamstar to incorporate the information into a healthcare procurement marketplace. "Currently, procurement and tender data stored in various digitized documents isn't readily available centrally to NHS procurement teams for analysis when ordering stock,” said Dr. Ziqi Zhang, who is leading the team at the University of Sheffield.

"Supplier selection during the procurement process is an extremely slow and laborious process for NHS buyers,” Dr. Zhang added, “and involves manually locating, reading and analyzing a significant amount of such data from various sources in order to evaluate a supplier’s capacity and credibility.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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