Buying local - should we be prioritising healthcare products from the UK?

The UK regularly buys healthcare products from overseas but given the economic scenario we face, it makes sense to prioritise UK manufacturers and suppliers, writes orthopaedic surgeon Harish Parmar.

Dishy Rishi, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was known for a while, endeared himself with popular giveaways at the start of the pandemic. Many felt safer, whether furloughed or supported in some way. These measures necessitated significant government spending to support the economy and population from going under.

Paying it back is the difficult balancing act for the Treasury in the coming years, but also a difficulty that all taxpayers in the UK will face. And when we think of places in the UK, we may think of places like Exeter, Oxford, Stanmore – don’t they sound just so quintessentially British? Indeed, they are places in England. But they are also names of orthopaedic implants: Exeter hip, Oxford knee, Stanmore hip. That is because the relevant implants were invented and developed there.

However, the implants are now sold by US companies. And in large numbers, to the NHS. The annual cost must be in millions, if not billions. These are good designs and good implants, so it is understandable that they are popular. Which is good news for the companies that sell them. And the country that exports them.

Often faced with a choice, a surgeon has no good reason for one over another. It can come down simply to the marketing, of exposure during training. Certainly, these implant names are well known and so feel “safe”.

However, there are many similar implants, so called “me-too” implants because they are based on the same principles. Many are still made in the UK by UK companies. In the same way that the Exeter, Oxford and Stanmore were originally.

As we emerge from the pandemic, there will inevitably be a rush on elective surgical services. There is a huge backlog of hip and knee replacements to catch up on.

Given the economic scenario we face, would it not make sense for the UK NHS to prioritise UK manufacturers and suppliers?

The value of their sales will contribute to the Treasury as tax receipts, keep many people in jobs and all this without compromising clinical quality. I am not talking about minor peripheral manufacturers: I am talking about major development companies that produce brilliant products but may not have the marketing power of US multinationals.

You may recall the story last year revealing how, through a questionable deal, a US jewellery designer was paid £21 million as a “go between” for the procurement by the NHS of PPE, for the current pandemic.

If that annoyed you, perhaps you should think about this.

If products are clinically comparable in quality and cost, and there is little to choose between them, perhaps we should be expressing a preference for UK made products for patients in the UK NHS – which is after all funded by the UK taxpayer.