Keeping the NHS well stocked in medication

Steve Squirell, DGH
Steve Squirell, DGH

ALMOST every department at the DGH can claim to provide a service which helps keep the hospital ticking over.

However, there is one area which does more than that. Hidden deep in the bowels of the DGH, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Unit (PMU) team stores, packages and even concocts thousands of different types of medication which are vital, not only for patients in Eastbourne, but those elsewhere in the UK.

Under the watchful eyes of business manager Paul Keen and acting production manager Steve Squirrell, the 30 or so members of staff currently working in the PMU department are responsible for much of the medication used at a stack of hospitals – from nearby sites elsewhere in Sussex to outposts in Scotland and Ireland.

A big part of the team’s job is taking licenced drugs and re-sorting them into small amounts, or ‘packing down’ as the staff call it. Mr Keen explained, “It is important to do that. We have some drugs which might cost £450 for 30 pills but the patient only needs five days worth so to just give them out an entire pack would be a waste of money.

“We can re-package them in a safe, clinical environment, before sending them out. This cuts down on wastage as well as cost and is a lot of what we do.”

Over the course of a single year, the PMU sends out around 400,000 separate items – which could be a single pill, or a stash of hundreds. That means the team is dealing with an awful lot of tablets.

“There are about 2,500 different products we deal with,” Mr Keen explained, “and the total number of individual tablets would run into the millions. It certainly keeps us busy.”

The team’s work has grown almost beyond all recognition since it was designed in the late 1970s. It started off as a small operation producing sterile water. Now the department is now just one of a small number across the country offering the service – something which is the source of no small price among the staff and of considering financial comfort for management at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust.

With so much business being sent in the direction of Eastbourne’s PMU, the department is the rarest of beasts – a hospital service which actually generates money rather than haemorrhages it.

And, with its work in such demand, the PMU can often find itself under extreme pressure.

As Mr Squirrell explained, “We manufacture about 500 different items here – including cancer drugs.

“Usually we have a steady workflow and can anticipate what people will need and when but there are some occasions when we have to put things together as quickly as possible.

“For example, there is a doctor at St Guys in London who likes to use a cream we produce for burns victims. That means that whenever someone comes in who needs it we get a call and have to get it ready ASAP and up to London to be used on the patient.”

The very nature of the team’s work also means staff operate in a high stakes environment. Everything is checked, double checked and checked again by hand and a high tech computer system also logs everything coming in or going out to make sure the right medication is going to the right hospital.

Rooms are kept sterile, at a certain temperature and have controlled air flow systems to stop outside contagions from getting mixed up in the pills or solutions being worked on. Staff are kitted out in specially designed uniforms which prevent anything being contaminated from workers’ clothes while there is a temperature controlled storage room where every medication the unit has produced is kept.

Almost all of the work done by PMU is of a pharmaceutical nature and remains very much behind the scenes.

But, as Mr Squirrell revealed, while the staff may not have direct access to patients, they do still take heart in a job well done.

“It is very rewarding,” he explained. “We don’t see patients or get to know them personally, although sometimes we see their names on the labels.

“But just knowing the job we do is helping them get better makes the job worthwhile.”