As the Health and Social Care Bill works its way through the House of Lords, more attention is being placed upon the private sector's role in the NHS.

The Liberal Democrats are trying to save face, challenging how much access to the NHS the Bill will grant the private sector. You can see why, the fear of privatisation through the back door resonates with the majority of voters.

There is a very real reason for this, the outcome of privatisation of other former public sector industries such as water, electricity and transport are all met with mixed opinions.

Initiatives such as PFI and the National Programme for IT sparked widespread criticism of attempts to involve commercial companies in NHS initiatives.

Even before the reforms are finalised, we find ourselves in a new era of healthcare, with NHS hospitals, mental health and community health Trusts all now competing to provide services alongside their private sector rivals.

It is perhaps time to stop placing the blame on private sector service providers and look at exactly what type of customer the NHS is.

When Katie Davis started as NHS Informatics MD, shortly after the National Programme for IT's Board met for the last time, she stressed that "The NHS does need to be a good intelligent customer", perhaps alluding to the fact that the downfall of the National Programme wasn't entirely the fault of the suppliers.

The Public Accounts Committee went one further, concluding that the reason private companies working in the public sector so often end up falling short of expectations was the public sector's "painful lacking in commercial experience. Staff negotiating the fine print of refinancing clauses in contracts, where the risks to the public sector can be high, must be trained so that they are not outwitted by the commercially-sophisticated private sector counterparts."

But when it comes to the provision of IT services into the NHS, commercial suppliers' service levels, agility and, most significantly, prices mean that for some NHS organisations they are unquestionably the best fit suppliers.

Public/private partnerships are now near-on inevitable in the NHS and, in reality have been around for some time. More so than ever before, it is essential that the NHS positions itself as an intelligent customer.

NHS CIOs should place their Trust's strategic objectives at the centre of any IT planning.

It is essential that any IT strategy is developed into an intelligent case for change; illustrating the economic, strategic, financial, management and commercial benefits that the implementation of the concept would realise.

But where the NHS really needs to start working more intelligently is when it comes to new ways of doing business.

Risk and reward models are beginning to emerge within the NHS space, allowing organisations to mitigate procurement risk and manage commercial challenges.

These models should be considered in order to work through this period of financial constraint as a way to achieve value for money and deliver the best quality of care for patients.

When it comes to commercial skill, it is essential that capability is established to manage new suppliers, that robust transition plans are established and ultimately, ensure that regardless of the supplier, the solution works for the NHS.

For private companies to successfully deliver services into the NHS, it is essential that the NHS becomes an intelligent customer; one that understands what they need, the value of the service, how to commission and how to optimise the benefit to the NHS.

By Rhys Hefford, CEO of Channel 3 Consulting and Digitech Resourcing

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