Since the creation of the NHS in 1948 a wide range of non-publicly owned health and care providers have helped the NHS deliver services that are free of charge to patients/users. Around 8% of NHS spending goes to the private businesses and charities which help deliver NHS services, whether through private hospital acute care, community or home care, or diagnostic services.

Demand for NHS services is high. People expect far more of it now than it delivered back in its early days. Advances in technology mean that better treatments are available. People are living longer, but not necessarily healthier lives. The NHS is a great market for the independent sector, but finances are tight and we’re living with the aftermath of an NHS re-organisation which is proving to be largely problematical for the NHS, rather than enabling. So, how can the independent sector win business in this squeezed market?

Know what the NHS wants to buy in the locations of interest and who to talk to

A good place to start is with the local Clinical Commissioning Groups’ (CCGs’) commissioning intentions documents, which are on their websites. These should outline what the CCG intends to commission for its patients in the forthcoming year. It’s also worth having a look at the relevant area’s Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP)1. Take every opportunity to network with system leaders in the area and join organisations like NHS Partners2, a trade association for independent sector providers of healthcare services to the NHS. Joining an Academic Health Science Network might help3 if your business solution is particularly innovative. Watch out for tender opportunities in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) and other sector publications and procurement websites.

Be clear about what you can offer

The NHS needs investment and innovation. Modern estate and new equipment or skills may not be available. You might be able to offer something alongside your core services that would help the NHS. For example, you might have state of the art facilities, provide access to capital, access to new technologies, or access to training opportunities for NHS staff. Think laterally about what you can offer that the NHS needs and have a clear sales pitch. You may need to offer more than just your core services to grab the NHS’s attention.

Consider partnering to deliver system wide solutions

It may be that you can solve one problem for the NHS, but that by partnering with other organisations, you could offer together a system wide solution. I have worked with private companies partnering with NHS trusts, charities and voluntary groups to deliver truly innovative one stop shop services, which are very attractive to the NHS if they can deliver savings in due course through increasing people’s health and wellbeing.

Be savvy about public procurement rules

The NHS has always had procurement rules. Our current rules come from the European Directive, which is likely to subsist for some time yet despite Brexit and even if they disappear post Brexit, they are likely to be replaced by some form of obligatory competition to ensure transparency in how public contracts are awarded. So, understand the rules that the NHS has to abide by and find solutions for them. If possible get onto a framework of suppliers, or if the framework is closed, sub-contract to a framework supplier.

Familiarise yourself with the NHS’s standard contracts

Understand how the contract works and the balance of risk and reward. We have vast experience of these contracts, what works, what does not and the areas often disputed. The contracts are a hybrid of standard commercial contract terms and national policy and they are updated annually. Understanding the contract will place you at a distinct commercial advantage when it comes to negotiating commercial terms.

Find the right person to talk to

This may not be the chief executive, the finance director, or the procurement director. It may be a clinical service director or a commercial director. If your offering might affect the whole health economy, think about who the movers and shakers are in the STP area and talk to them.