It will not matter if the English NHS drugs bill stays the same over the next few years, or even increases, but the money needs to be spent more wisely, according to a senior Department of Health official.

The NHS has to stop buying pills and start purchasing services, but the business models of neither the NHS nor the pharmaceutical industry are geared up for this, according to Jim Easton, national director for improvement and efficiency for the NHS in England, speaking at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) annual conference in London yesterday.

He emphasised the need to obtain value from medicines and tackle the big locked-in financial issues, such as those related to patients with chronic conditions who are regularly in and out of hospital on unplanned admissions, and invited the conference delegates to consider where might be the "sweet spots," or areas of opportunity which the NHS and industry can share.

One sweet spot is represented by the new NHS Commissioning Board (NHSCB), a powerful new voice which will be setting standards for the NHS in England. The industry needs to build a strong shared vision with the Board, said Mr Easton, and he advised companies not to wait till July or August, when the Board will start talking, to develop their business responses. "The door will be open soon - walk through it," he urged them, and forecast that the Board's ambition will be to become "the best chronic disease management organisation in the world."

Another area of opportunity lies with the new GP commissioning consortia; GPs are a community which the industry knows well, and creation of the consortia is an opportunity for the industry to help doctors do their jobs, he said.

A third potential sweet spot lies in the area of commissioning support arrangements. Hospital trusts which initially felt that they could manage to run their businesses alone in financial terms are now realising that they have to come together to create scope - and frequently this need is not geographical but about communities of interest, said Mr Easton. He advised companies to "find these people and talk to them - in three years' time they will be leading the agenda," he forecast.

Mr Easton also invited the audience to consider the government's plans to use the public sector, including the NHS, to drive innovation. He acknowledged the difficulties of penetrating the "supposedly integrated" MHS market, but pointed out that worldwide, the NHS brand is very powerful, particularly in markets such as China and India and, he said: "the government is ambitious."

"It would be appropriate for the industry to be sceptical about these ambitions but not, I hope, cynical," he said.