Transforming NHS Speciality Pharmacy Services

How we turned the NHS pharmacy advisory department into a digital-first organisation

User Experience
Big Data

The Specialist Pharmacy Service (SPS) is an organisation of over 100 senior pharmacy professionals that guide the National Health Service on the safe, effective and efficient use of medicines.

SPS was comprised of four units, operating separately:

  • Medicines information
  • Medicines use and safety
  • Medicines procurements
  • Medicines quality assurance

each having multiple digital content repositories.

Those repositories added up to 17 in total. 17 different places for people to search for the information they needed, sometimes in time-critical situations. More often than not it meant information was delivered point to point by phone with all of the inefficiencies that brings.


A one-stop shop

The team recognised it was time to change and time to unify. They needed to bring everything together - technology, people and voice - all under a single identity. If they could make better use of digital technology, the NHS could drive a safer and more effective use of medicines.

The team began their search for a partner, a digital organisation with healthcare experience, to help define a digital vision and realise it.


A meeting of minds

At the time we had been working closely with a London Healthcare Innovation lab on an app to improve clinical handover in Secondary Care and that mix of digital experience and healthcare experience made us an ideal fit

Getting to know you

It was then a joint process of discovery, understanding the needs of users and experts and finding the best way to work together to meet them.

We worked closely together to understand the needs of all four departments, running user workshops and user and stakeholder interviews.

Building the brand and vision for the future both visually and in words.

  • Vision and values workshops
  • User and stakeholder interviews to understand the needs of the four departments

creating sitemaps, wireframes, logo and brand guidelines and a target-state visual design.

That gave the whole team a vision to stand behind, that had been created in collaboration.

SPS Compliance Aid Tool

The technical challenge

SPS knew that information needed to be organised around medicines and patients, not internal structures and we worked together to define a taxonomy which would glue together information organised around primary dimensions

  • Medicines - classified by the dictionary of medicines and devices (dm+d)
  • Care Setting
  • Specialty

Similarly data structures needed modernisation. So we modelled and reviewed and iterated and refined, until we had a target to migrate all 17 repositories into.


To make the process transparent to everyone on the team, we adopted an agile model. It was Kanban at first as it was a lot of people’s first exposure to agile and with consistent effort people soon got used to the process, confidently raising and prioritising work, capturing bugs, reviewing and confirming the scope of releases.

Bumps in the road

Of course there were obstacles along the way.

We underestimated the popularity of the site initially, basing it on the combined traffic the original repositories received. The site was overwhelmed and we very quickly scaled our cloud services as well as putting in caching.

We also quickly outgrew Wordpress out of the box search replacing it with Elasticsearch which we’ve incrementally enhanced over the years as our users needs and our understanding of them evolved.

SPS Drug Monitoring Tool

Confident, directed progress

Since those early days we found a groove and established a strong user centred method

Each new project allowed time for discovery, understanding the clinical area was critical in being able to successfully create products.

Followed by frugal design and quick implementations to bring something into the hands of users quickly that we could refine with task-based user testing.

That method alongside time for technical improvements, allowed us to deliver information and tools for the audience in

  • Medicines shortages
  • Therapeutic Drug Monitoring
  • Medicines switching
  • COVID-19 vaccines rollout
  • Google Cloud Platform via Terraform

And scale through the pandemic.

SPS were responsible for delivering all standard operating procedures for COVID-19 vaccine rollout

And site traffic hit half a million monthly active users

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