UNSPSC is the Swiss Army Knife of classification: many users, robust, and well known. And just like the Swiss Army Knife, UNSPSC classification is a great tool with many great use cases. It covers everything and is a great one-stop shop. The UNSPSC code is maintained and has a logical hierarchy and groupings. However, anyone that has owned a Swiss Army Knife – or any multi-tool – knows that, while it gets the job done, some jobs require a more specialized tool. And to get the job done on time and accurately, professionals invest in – and use – specialized tools. So why is relying on UNSPSC classification for medical devices problematic for healthcare supply chain teams?

The Reason UNSPSC Classification for Medical Devices Is Problematic

UNSPSC stands for United Nations Standard Products and Services Code. The UNSPSC is a standard in the global economy as it is governed by the UN (United Nations); and due to this, the codeset is well maintained.

As previously stated, UNSPSC is a great system, and we are not discrediting the fact that the UNSPSC classification and taxonomy have their place in the world; they do. However, UNSPSC often times is not a robust enough tool for medical devices.

An example that I often bring up to customers is that if you type “cherries” into the UNSPSC search engine, it will return over 375 results: canned maraschino cherries, fresh duke cherries, frozen organic black tartarian cherries, and the list continues. This is an oddly specific classification for a type of fruit that few could name more than one type of variety.

UNSPSC Cherries Search Result Page

The problem arises when you apply a broad classification system to items with important minute details. In orthopedic implants, for example, those details can have large impacts on the price of the device or the type of procedure that was done. 

“When you can better classify cherries rather than orthopedic implants, it might be time to reconsider the way your organization classifies orthopedic components.”

How UNSPSC Classification Works

The UNSPSC is a classification and a taxonomy of items. Every time you add two digits onto the original two digits, you get greater specificity. 

Below is how to get to Hip Joint Orthopedic implants using the UNSPSC codeset:
  • 42000000 – Medical Equipment and Accessories and Supplies
  • 42320000 – Orthopedic Implants
  • 42321700 – Hip joint implants
Under the last level, you have all the components that make up a total hip:
  • 42321708 – Femoral Hips Stems 
  • 42321704 – Femoral heads 
  • 42321703 – Acetabular cup liners 
  • 42321702 – Acetabular shells 
The UNSPSC total hip construction and what you cannot see:
UNSPSC Code What you get (Code Description) What you are missing from UNSPSC
42321708 Femoral Hips Stems Coated vs. Uncoated; Primary; Revision
42321704 Femoral Heads Ceramic vs. Metal; Non-resurfacing; Resurfacing
42321703 Acetabular cup liners Bipolar; Constrained;Revision
42321702 Acetabular shells Dual Mobility; Revision

And for all of these parts, we are missing the material and sizes from the UNSPSC codeset.

The UNSPSC is comprised of 4 two digit pairs, and if you look at the four main UNSPSC codes that make up a primary hip, you can see that any further subdividing of the parts cannot be done. We cannot determine if the femoral head is metal or ceramic, the number of holes the acetabular shell has, nor whether or not the femoral stem is coated or uncoated. And this is why relying on UNSPSC classification for orthopedics and medical devices is problematic.

Next Steps

UNSPSC can quickly and reliably add basic classification in your data. But the UNSPSC just doesn’t go all the way.

In areas such as Orthopedics where these details constitute different pricing and clinical significance, you can be missing the full picture. In your clinical practice and supply chain solutions, take a look at your organization’s orthopedic classification and ask yourself if you are able to see the whole picture. And remember: when you can better classify cherries rather than orthopedic implants, it might be time to reconsider the way your organization classifies orthopedic components.