Row over Cambridge NHS procurement

An IT supplier has taken the highly unusual step of formally asking an NHS trust to explain its conduct of a procurement which ended in the choice of a rival firm. The US-based healthcare specialist Cerner is also raising the possibility of legal action.

Cambridge University Hospitals trust’s eHospital scheme, is one of the highest profile hospital IT projects to be launched following the break-up of the National Programme for IT in England. The trust includes the renowned Papworth cardiac specialist hospital. Rather than take the CSC/Isoft package specified for region under the national programme, Cambridge held a full OJEU procurement for a new electronic patient-records system.
Among the bidders were Cerner, whose system was the national programme’s choice for London and the south of England, and its US rival Epic, a staff-owned company which is a newcomer to the NHS.

In April, the trust announced that Epic was preferred bidder. The decision infuriated Cerner, which says it has invested heavily over more than a decade in tailoring its software to the NHS. In a letter to the trust’s chief executive and board, it has asked for an explanation. The letter has not been made public, but people who has seen it says it questions the pricing criteria, the short-listing procedure and how the trust scored Epic’s patient-administration system, which will have to be developed for the NHS.

Cerner says it is the first time the company has challenged a public procurement decision in the UK. However it is resolved, it reflects a revival in the market for NHS hospital systems – paralysed for years by the national programme’s failure to install advanced electronic patient-record software. Other US firms winning business include McKesson, which is offering a UK-developed system called Medway. However the challenge also indicates that, with the current funding climate in the NHS, big procurements will be rare and bitterly contested.

Analyst Tola Sargeant of TechMarketView sounded a note of caution: “Although very successful in the US, Epic is new to the UK and relatively new to Europe, with just three reference sites in the Netherlands. It claims to have already ‘internationalised’ its software, but the language it’s been using suggests there is still some learning to be done about the peculiarities of the NHS. Moreover, like Cerner previously, its software suits a ‘rip and replace’ strategy and leaves little room for ‘best of breed’ software – is that an alarm bell ringing somewhere in the distance?”

A Cambridge University Hospitals spokesman said: “The trust has run an open and fair OJEU competition in line with public procurement processes. The trust is continuing to proceed with the procurement process for eHospital.”


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