A hospital that bought 177 different types of surgical glove was cited yesterday as an example of the gross inefficiency in NHS purchasing practice.
Other trusts wasted money buying 21 different types of A4 paper and an eyewatering 1,751 different cannulas – the plastic tubes used to drip blood or other fluids into veins.
In a highly critical report, the National Audit Office (NAO) said NHS trusts were paying millions of pounds more than necessary for supplies by making small purchases, buying many different types of the same product, and paying widely differing prices. At least £500m a year could be saved if they were more efficient, the NAO said.
The report comes as the NHS faces demands for savings of up to £20bn over the next four years, to help pay for the needs of an ageing population and new treatment techniques while its budget remains flat or declines.
Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Committee for Public Accounts, said improving purchasing of supplies was one "very obvious area" where savings could be made.
"It is simply unacceptable that so many hospital trusts are currently paying more than they need for basic supplies," she said. "Even for some of the commonest items, the price hospitals pay varies by more than 100 per cent."
But Sue Slipman, director of the Foundation Trust Network, said: "Centralised purchasing schemes have not always proved effective or efficient."
She said foundation trusts managing their own budgets in difficult economic times already had all the incentives they needed to save money.