Monthly Archives: March 2015

When underperformance is policy

With the release of the latest analysis from the King’s Fund (here), heightened attention is being paid to NHS performance. It may only be a coincidence that an election is looming in which the NHS may be an election puppet. The King’s Fund report includes in the title that it an assessment of the NHS under the coalition government. While to some extent this is true, the NHS performance is not really about the actions of the government, but how policy direction is implemented by NHS providers and the system for commissioning care and the role of Monitor. Gosh, so many moving parts. By the way, I have no real criticism of the methodology used in the report; it is always about what conclusions we draw that matters.

The Report takes performance since 2010 for a baseline. Any numerate person knows that choosing your starting point is important in supporting conclusions about performance. We have had a recent report on blood transfusion in the NHS in the 1970s and 1980s, which had folks then known how poorly the NHS performed would likely have led to mass emigration; at that time, many of the people now in advisory or senior roles were learning their jobs and establishing their preferences and politicians were unable to imagine alternatives.

All governments of any political persuasion have acted to protect the NHS from direct litigation; the effect of this is to indemnify managerial inaction and poor treatment of patients. For example, in the early 1990s it became known that the deaths from hospital acquired infections exceeded road traffic accidents. This produced better infection control methods but didn’t improve patient safety. Had the NHS providers been subject then to pretty standard accreditation methods used in Australia, Canada and the US, it would have likely shuttered half of the NHS hospitals as dangerous to the public.

So, one conclusion might be that the NHS isn’t doing that poorly when put against its historical legacy of significant underperformance, and inefficiencies. Despite the domestic mythology that the NHS is/was the envy of the world, it is/was the universality of it that folks admired, not its waiting lists and high clinical death rates. During the debates on the implementation of what is known loosely as Obamacare, referring to the NHS or the UK health system was avoided as a political red flag; the country that was viewed favourably was the Netherlands.

The Report usefully looks at resources available. What needs to be appreciated in understanding resource use, is whether the resources are where they need to be. NHS hospitals are monopoly suppliers of specialists, labs and imaging services and a lot of services that are run from hospitals really don’t even need to be there (think ophthalmology, diabetic care, much physiotherapy); NHS hospitals reluctantly give up clinical control of patients receiving homecare and so on.

GPs and their patients must be fitted into the hospital’s service capacity in order to receive much care. Anyone who has had to wait for a scan will wonder why. As resource utilisation dictates whether outcomes are achieved and directly impact quality of care, the bottlenecks created by monopolistic practices in the NHS will only lead to greater risk of declining performance. People who hit the 4 hour A&E target who need some imaging, will of necessity get admitted, otherwise they are on the out-patient list (which can extend into months). All this is avoidable.

So not having the right resources available at the right time isn’t a crisis of funding, it is a crisis of management and system design.

The proof is always in the pudding. The Macmillan folks released a report on cancer survival (here), with their conclusion that cancer survival in the UK is stuck in the 1990s. Despite years of extra money, what is going wrong? A paper in the International Journal of Cancer (Moller H, et al Breast cancer survival in England, Norway and Sweden: a population-based comparison, 127, 2630–2638 (2010)) concluded:

“[if cancer patients in England are presenting at more advanced stages of cancer], then the main public health implication is that any strategy for improvement should include as a primary focus symptom awareness among middle-aged and older women and their primary care professionals, with an aim to facilitate early diagnosis and treatment.”

The implication for the NHS and belatedly recognised by NHS England, is that poor cancer outcomes come from the inability of patients to access oncologists directly in a timely manner. This arises from the hospital’s monopoly control of specialists and the inability of oncologists to establish direct access to full-service oncology services for patients when compared to access in the countries highlighted in the Macmillan report. The same can be said of many other clinical areas which hospitals monopolise. The disruptive forces at work in other sectors of our society are muted when it comes to healthcare — in part because politicians fear the failure of publicly funded institutions.

What Cognology says

One can only be optimistic that new types of provider (such as the Vanguard sites) and other organisational redesign of clinical workflow will be successful and that the current problems are not a collective, unconscious, conspiracy of inaction within the NHS to shift responsibility onto politicians rather than taking direction action themselves.

The policy space for the NHS under the coalition government has removed considerable barriers to innovation, which should point to underperformance as a matter of design, not money.

Political football

Political manifestos that promise to spend more money are failing to grapple with the powerful underlying forces at work in healthcare. Indeed, they may be ignoring these in order to score (cheap?) political points with voters.

There is clear evidence of failure to use good practice, of time-wasting clinical workflow and excessive political and bureaucratic overhang. Granted the UK state (in its components) is justified seeking a form of accountability for the vast expenditure of public money, but this does not necessarily entail control of how the money is spent and this particular debate is questionable given the performance of other countries’ health systems (e.g. the Dalton review). Historical evidence would show that public control of expenditure in many areas leads to “rent-seeking” behaviours by public servants at the expense of service quality.

Governance arrangements such as proposed at Greater Manchester look little different from the NHS as a whole and I fear will lead to excessive wasteful bureaucracy at the expense of front-line service quality (seen from the patient’s perspective not the bureaucrats).  I wonder if they will achieve the same degree of performance as the Swedish county councils.

The power shift that is underway in healthcare, with its consumerisation through digital technology, publicly accessible performance information, and priority on value-for-money (which are not bad things) wrong-foots policy positions that seek to exert the role of the state at the expense of individual patient control and choice. And going forward, it is hard to justify disenfranchising patients from control of their healthcare when so much of their lives is under their control.

Whole Person Care as a Labour political slogan may play well in the press, but creating it requires thinking about how whole systems of care integrate and this will challenge the dysfunctional fault line running through some parties’ politics on the role of the private/independent/voluntary sectors.

This thinking is absent (at this stage) from the Greater Manchester MOU, meaning the capacity of the private and independent sectors is not included in their total health system capacity planning. But failing to grasp the needs of other than NHS organisations is not limited to this, but extends to workforce planning, which must also satisfy the needs of the private sector across a wide range of workplace settings. One may not like private healthcare, but it is irresponsible to ignore its existence.

We know that quality may be poor and performance reporting and information virtually impossible to obtain from private providers but there are reasons for this. From the position of a patient, NHS commissioners should be agnostic on the fitness of a provider and this would have the benefit of integrating care and quality across the patient treatment pathway and incorporate all possible sources of capacity and service delivery. It is the failure to normalise the role of the private and independent/volunteer sectors within total health system capacity that causes considerable fragmentation to patient care, and contributes to political posturing on the back of patient care. It would be wrong to assume failure is unique to the private sector and no political party can ignore the failures of the NHS (Bristol, Mid Staffs, and so many others).

In part this has been caused by the Department of Health traditionally insulating NHS providers from quality reporting and the consequences of failure. All governments have a problem to imagine the failure of publicly funded organisations (in any sector), but they do happen and require serious action to fix. Regretfully, there is evidence that local authorities exhibit the same behaviours.

What Cognology says

In the end, the disinfecting light of public scrutiny is the solution, not more money. The NHS still avoids formal provider accreditation, instead opting for a (complex and troubled) inspection system through CQC which only now appears to be understanding the importance of provider failure — but failure in a complex care system is about people failing to act, of systems that are dysfunctional, and yes, driven by a focus on wrong-headed targets and a focus on pleasing political masters.

Ant hills: design logic

The direction the NHS is now taking is evidence that some aspects of NHS performance arise from fundamental design flaws.

The mistake was likely made in 1948 to separate healthcare and social care. Today, as care processes shift into the community and the early forces of consumerisation in healthcare emerge, the underlying separation logic is unworkable.

Unfortunately, tax funded healthcare and cost-shared social care (coupled with split jurisdictional authority) have proved to be an administrative and financing nightmare, but more importantly a complex disconnected experience for patients. While Beveridge had a good idea, its execution has proved to be seriously flawed (it was even based on the unrealistic promise that costs would go down). In contrast, the social insurance model bundled health and social care from the beginning and we can see that it produces better care integration and outcomes. Indeed, countries with direct access to specialists appear to have better oncology and cardiovascular outcomes. There may even be evidence that gatekeeping may be causing access problems and delayed diagnosis (up to 1 year for ovarian cancer, and 2 years for neurological disorders, plus more….); proposed changes here are upsetting the BMA which opposes direct patient referral for oncology testing. One wonders what they fear that other countries don’t.

Patients and users of the NHS have no ‘skin the game’ because they lack the ability to exercise choice directly to influence quality. Proxy measures are used instead to achieve this and draw on the standard NHS ontology of committees and panels and senates and similar decision processes. Any student of such systems would know that such proceses are invariably excuses for inaction and may simply act to protect vested professional interest groups through those who sit on them.

The Greater Manchester approach is in the spirit of service integration and could lead to better quality and care, but I fear it will simply replicate the complex administrative and bureaucratic overhang that bedevils the NHS itself. In the end, it may only be redistributing resources without real service delivery innovation. Of course, if they were to replicate the Swedish approach, then perhaps there might be light at the end of the tunnel, but the funding model is wrong for that.  Simply lumping things together requires the creation of coordination systems, which will, in the end, direct managerial attention to the performance of the coordination system, and not on quality, service delivery and patient care. Keep in mind that only the patient has direct experience of the care pathway, and where it fails to integrate.

However, I have no problem with decentralising and localising services and doubt the word “National” also meant uniform services at the lowest common standard; such thinking has led to mediocre service quality, unacceptable waiting, delay and political confusion. Excellence should be allowed to flourish as evidence of how good care can be; unfortunately, localised excellence is often rubbished and characterised as post-code lotteries and multi-tierism, and ends up being used as political hay to undermine innovation.

What Cognology says

Think of hive minds and ant hills when designing systems to be intelligent.