Category Archives: Health Reform

Unbundling: the future of health and social care to 2035

The King’s Fund, a UK health charity ran a scenario essay writing competition, which I entered. I didn’t win, but here is the link and of course congratulations to the winner: (winner, runner up and other scenarios, but not mine).

Below is a  version of my submitted scenario, revised and generalised to any care system. The scenario builds on the notion of service unbundling and draws on strong and weak signals of changes likely to impact health and social care perhaps to about 2035. The scenario is written as a retrospective view from the year 2047.

Unbundling 2035

Between 2016 and 2035, the way that people worked had substantially changed by widespread digitisation of information. Smart machines and robots had moved from doing physical work to being central to much cognitive work and which led to fundamental restructuring of the economy. By 2035, taxation was changing from taxing people to taxing the work done by devices, cognologies, and robots.

The fault lines between reality and expectations were starkly evident during the 2020s, as public investment in health and social care struggled to cope with the rapidly changing world. People were becoming accustomed to flexible access to personalised services that came to them and expected the same from care provision. Rising displeasure at service decline led to middle-class flight to alternatives with rising use of private medical insurance, progressively fracturing the social contract that legitimated publicly-funded care. Indeed, by 2028, 38% of the population used private care, with over 55% amongst Millennials.

Fearful health and social executives and worried Ministers of Health had reacted to these stresses by pulling the system even more tightly together, to protect jobs and avoid the failure of publicly-funded institutions.

This fed further public displeasure by the dominant middle-aged Millennials who challenged the traditional approaches to health and social care. In the United Kingdom, for instance, this unrest led to the 2028 Referendum on their tax-funded healthcare system, leading to the replacement of this system with social insurers and personal Social and Health Care Savings Accounts.

The process of changes in health and social care around the world has become known as Unbundling. This brief historical retrospective outlines three of the key components of that unbundling.

The 1st Unbundling: of knowledge and clinical work

Professional knowledge was affected by digital technologies which had unbundled knowledge from the expert. This changed how expert knowledge was organised, used and accessed; research institutions and knowledge-based organisations were the first to feel the changes, with librarians being one of the first professions to face obsolescence. Rising under-employment, particularly in traditional male-dominated occupations was still being absorbed by the economy.

Routine cognitive work and access to information and services was increasingly provided by cognologies (intelligent technologies) or personal agents as they were called. Widely used across society, they were embedded in clinical workflow from diagnosis to autonomous minimally invasive surgery. By this time, jobs with “assistant” in the title had generally disappeared from the care system, despite having been seen as an innovative response to workforce shortages through the late 20-teens. These jobs had turned out to be uninteresting, and being highly fragmented, required time-consuming supervision.

The benefits of precision medicine were substantial by this time, enabling earlier diagnosis and simpler and less invasive treatments. Theranostics, the merging of diagnosis and therapy, unbundled the linear care pathway and the associated clinical and support work. This also led to the unbundling of specialist clinical services, laboratory testing and imaging from monopoly supply by hospitals. Indeed, the last hospital was planned in 2025, but by the time it opened in 2033, was deemed obsolete.

The 2nd Unbundling: of financing and payment

The unbearable and unsustainable rise in health and social care costs necessitated better ways to align individual behaviours and preferences with long term health and well-being. Behavioural science had shown that people did not always act in their own best interests; this meant the care system needed people to have ‘skin in the game’, best done by monetising highly salient personal risks.

Existing social insurance systems which used co-payments were more progressive in this direction, while countries with tax-funded systems were forced to reassess the use of co-payments, and financial incentives. The Millennials, having replaced the baby-boomers as the primary demographic group, were prepared to trade-off equity for more direct access to care. It also became politically difficult to advance equity as a goal against the evidence of poorer health outcomes as comparisons with peer countries drove performance improvements.

The use of medical/social savings accounts was one way that gave individuals control of their own money and building on consumerist behaviour, this directly led to improved service quality and incentivised provider performance as they could no longer hide behind the protecting veil of public funding. The social insurers were able to leverage significant reforms through novel payment systems, and influence individual health behaviours through value-based (or evidence-based) insurance not possible under a taxation system.

The 3rd Unbundling: of organisations

With people used to having their preferences met through personalised arrangements, care was organised around flexible patterns of provision able to respond easily to new models of care. This replaced the “tightly coupled” organisational approach known in the early part of the 21st century as “integration”, which we know led to constrained patient pathways, and limited patient choices unable to evolve with social, clinical and technological changes.

The big-data tipping point is reckoned to have occurred around 2025. Because the various technologies and cognologies had become ambient in care environments they were invisible to patients, informal carers, and care professionals alike; this enabled the genesis of smaller and more diverse working environments.

By 2032, medical consultants were no-longer hospital-based, having become clinical care social organisations, with their cheaper, smaller, portable, networked and intelligent clinical resources. Other care professionals had followed suit. These clinical groupings accessed additional clinical expertise on as-needed basis (known as the “Hollywood” work model); this way of organising clinical expertise helped downsize and reshape the provision of care and met patient expectations for a plurality of care experiences.

It takes time to shift from the reliance on monopoly supply of care from hospitals in those countries that continued to pursue a state monopoly role in care provision. However, most repurposed themselves quite quickly as focused factories, while the more research-oriented specialised in accelerating the translation of research into daily use, helped along by the new research discovery tools and the deepening impact of systems biology which was making clinical trials obsolete.

Conclusion

This Unbundling arose as a product of the evolution of social attitudes, informed by the emerging technological possibilities of the day. The period from 2016 to 2025 was a critical time for all countries, exacerbated by shortages in the workforce coupled with economic difficulties and political instability.

Today, in 2047, we are well removed from those stresses that caused such great anxiety. We must marvel, though, at the courage of those who were prepared to build what today is a leaner, simpler and more plural system, removed from politicised finance and management decisions.

It is hard to imagine our familiar home-based theranostic pods emerging had this trajectory of events not happened. As our Gen-Zeds enter middle age, they will, in their turn, reshape today’s system.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

27 December 2047

Note on the Scenario

This scenario is informed by strong and weak signals, including:

Ayers A, Miller K, Park J, Schwartz L, Antcliff R. The Hollywood model: leveraging the capabilities of freelance talent to advance innovation and reduce risk. Research-Technology Management. 2016 Sep 2;59(5):27–37.

Babraham Institute. The zero person biotech company. Drug Baron. http://drugbaron.com/the-zero-person-biotech-company/

Cook D, Thompson JE, Habermann EB, Visscher SL, Dearani JA, Roger VL, et al. From ‘Solution Shop’ Model to ‘Focused Factory’ in hospital surgery: increasing care value and predictability. Health Affairs. 2014 May 1;33(5):746–55.

Cullis P. The personalized medicine revolution: how diagnosing and treating disease are about to change forever. Greystone Books, 2015.

Does machine learning spell the end of the data scientist? Innovation Enterprise. https://channels.theinnovationenterprise.com/articles/does-machine-learning-spell-the-end-of-the-data-scientist

Eberstadt, N. Men without work. Templeton, 2016.

Europe’s robots to become ‘electronic persons’ under draft plan. Reuters. www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-robotics-lawmaking-idUSKCN0Z72AY

First 3D-printed drug just unveiled: welcome to the future of medicine. https://futurism.com/first-3d-printed-drug-just-unveiled-welcome-future-medicine/

Ford M. The rise of the robots: technology and the threat of mass unemployment. Basic Books, 2015.

Frey BC, Osborne MA. The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Oxford Martin School, Oxford University, 2013.

Generation uphill. The Economist. www.economist.com/news/special-report/21688591-millennials-are-brainiest-best-educated-generation-ever-yet-their-elders-often [accessed December 2016]

Lakdawalla DN, Bhattacharya J, Goldman DP. Are the young becoming more disabled? Health Affairs, 23(1-2004):168-176.

Susskind R, Susskind D. The future of the professions: how technology will transform the work of human experts. Oxford UP, 2015.

Topol E. The creative destruction of medicine: how the digital revolution will create better health care. Basic Books, 2012.

With Samsung’s ‘Bio-Processor,’ wearable health tech is about to get weird. Motherboard. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/with-samsungs-bio-processor-wearable-health-tech-is-about-to-get-weird

Why the UK’s NHS may be doing poorly

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.

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.

NHS Five Year Forward View: still no skin in the game

NHS England and other English health organisations have produced a five year ‘forward view’ [here]. The refreshingly short and precise document establishes a new approach to the

English: British National Insurance stamp.

“Skin in the Game” British National Insurance stamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English health service, something political reform has failed to achieve since perhaps the beginning in 1948, namely the realisation that top-down reform really doesn’t work. This is a bit surprising given how oftenNHS folk have travelled, particularly to the US, and other places, where the notion of a top-down approach is anathema. All these visits, reports and breathless commentary on lessons learned has really, it now seems, to have been for nought.

We also now have some explanation why the attempts to adapt lessons and approaches from other countries has failed — the heavy overarching deadweight of central control has stifled innovation. Given the additional volumes of studies of the NHS, think tank policy papers, round-table discussions and consultation, researchers, in the UK at least, seem to have been trapped within their own paradigm and failed to see the internal fault lines that pointed to this blind-spot.

Anyway, that said, we now see that Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, has not wasted his time in the US, as not only does the report quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but tacitly acknowledges that the US (and other countries, but not in the UK) favour decentralised experimentalisation with payer and service delivery flexibility.

Lawton Burns in his important book on healthcare innovation [The Business of Healthcare Innovation, 2005, @Amazon] notes that one reason the US dominates the health technology innovation space is precisely because of the flexibility to experiment, try new things in healthcare service development.

This report, together with the other surprising ‘discovery’ that the funding of healthcare and social care are also part of the problem, after decades of dysfunction, shows that there is now a window within which major changes can be achieved to remove perverse policy incentives, drop barriers to change and get rid of the zombie administriative rules that kill off good ideas.

So where might this all go? Yes there are some very good examples already in place and one hopes more to come. But putting the cat amongst the pigeons may have other rather interesting consequences.

If we see increased power shifting to cities, will we see Swedish-style county-council run healthcare? Such an approach has the merits of democratic accountability, and challengingly, puts funding options within local taxation strategies. Given years ago I advocated with the other big city in the UK a local-council run NHS which caused no end of criticism, I would be surprised if this doesn’t come back on the agenda.

The rising priority of prevention also highlights one weakness of the NHS.  Dating back to 1819, employers had legal duties imposed on them for the health and safety of their workers, a responsibility which the creation of the NHS in effect removed at least in respect of health.  The report notes that employers pay National Insurance as though that were sufficient motivation. What the report fails to add is that NI employer contributions are not experience-rated in terms of the health of the workers themselves. The NHS has flirted with workplace healthcare in the past, but the concept of “primary care in the workplace” has failed. Stevens will know (and others should) how many countries separate workplace health from general health. Some places call it “workers compensation” and it involves risk-based employer premiums, adjusted for actual workplace health, injuries and accidents. Countries with such systems include the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, and others.  What taxation does is risk-pool, but that means it is hard to link individual behaviour to risk.

American Accountable Care Organisations and other similar approaches in other countries of long-standing, only work when organisations are free to associate in ways that make financial and healthcare sense. US ACOs are forming partly in response to the financial signals in healthcare legislation there, but these signals, coupled with systems of rigourous inspection (and a failure regime), focuses minds. Vertical or horizontal integration in the NHS is needed, and would serve to remove at a stroke the barriers that bedevil patients. I’ve seen how building primary care onto the ‘front’ of the hospital enabled speedy patient access to specialists (they simply came down from the wards) and avoided inappropriate admissions. Buying a nursing home added a step-down into the coummenity releasing pressure on in-patient beds. GP integration toward secondary care pulls diagnostic imaging and laboratory technologies toward the patient, and removes hospital monopoly control of what is the major cause of delayed diagnosis.

But, the end result is in the UK, consumers, patients, employers, have no real skin in the game, which in these days of behavioural economics means that it is additionally challenging in the NHS to activate the essential incentives to align patients around their care, or employers around healthy workplaces other than through moral suasion.

We may need to revisit how to use the NI contributions as co-payments to create the necessary financial incentives that serve to quantify risk to both patients and employers.

Of course, one should be grateful for small miracles, which is why this report is welcomed.

P.S. I suspect this can be done without new money.

 

 

 

 

Why the proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill is a bad idea

Right now, there is the proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill, a lobby document which lays out a way to reverse many NHS reforms.

This lobby document, which is what is it, is familiar reading, and brings back various structures that in the past have failed. You can find information on it at this link.

What is interesting about this approach is the aura of respectability that it wraps itself in, by proposing the changes as a legislative draft, almost as though it were ready to go to committee.  This is, obviously, an influencing tactic designed to force debate onto the topics covered in the proposed bill, and disarm critics who don’t agree that the points in the lobby document are the right starting points. In that respect, the lobby document polarises positions, particularly against current policy direction.

The whole lobby document’s comments and notes identifies proposed changes to a variety of existing legilsation. What we don’t find, though is any evidence that the authors were in any way persuasive  or influential during public consultations at the time. We call that ‘sour grapes’.

Approaches such as this suffer from the following:

  1.  a belief that the fundamental values underpinning the health service can only be protected in a particular way and these are the ways things used to be.
  2. a belief that the changes that have been made have violated these values; moreover, that the solutions have made things ‘worse’ as they see it.
  3. selective use of academic research to support the positions that one wishes to avoid changing.

New PublicManagement as reform of government itself must sit uncomfortably with this regressive thinking.

For the authors, they would no doubt point to market failure logic to prove that the NHS should not be ‘marketised’ as they put it, forgetting that a greater fear is ‘government failure’, for which there is ample evidence, not just with the NHS but a whole host of other public initiatives and legislation that has wasted public money.

Healthcare systems are complex and by trying to overlay what they see as simple solutions to the problems they claim arise from the reform agenda of past years, they misrepresent what the actual problems are. As messy, or complex/wicked, challenges, the authors believe that by taking away that messiness, they’ll also take away the problems. But they know just as well as anyone, that their solutions will only create, perhaps even recreate, the very problems that led to reform in the first place, except now they will be today’s problems, not yesterday’s.

One might argue that the authors are committing a type 3 error, of unintentionally solving the wrong problem well, but that would assume that they have are not clear in their minds what they are proposing. Therefore, it appears they are do know better and are committing a type 4 error, of intentially solving the wrong problem well because that fits with their policy preferences, or prejudices.

That’s why this is a lobby document, designed to intensionally convince, (is mislead too strong?) others of their definition of what the NHS problem is.

Regardless, the lobby document and the authors are caught by a fundament policy trap: of solving the wrong problem.

Want to know more?

Government failure in the UK is examined in Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, 2013 (@Amazon) and in Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it, 2013. (@Amazon)

New Public Management was originally conceptualised by Christopher Hood, in 1991, A Public Management for All Seasons. Public Administration, 69 (Spring), 3-19. Some (Dunlevey et al) argue that New Public Management is dead and that governance in the digital era requires greater, not less, government. That may be the case for some, but if you actually look at the tools that are available to government in a digital world, you’d find that there is little reason for government to own or run very much. See Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts, The Tools of Government in the Digital Age, 2007. (@Amazon)

I have found Leslie David Simon’s book, NetPolicy.com (Woodrow Willson Centre, 2000) an early, and compelling way of laying out the digital agenda in a policy context really well. (@Amazon)

I would also recommend Vito Tanzi, Government versus Markets: the changing economic role of the state, 2011. (@Amazon)

 

Cancer Services in the NHS are coming apart at the seams: time for a new paradigm

Measuring Up: the health of NHS Cancer Services is a report from Cancer Research UK.

I have no difficulty accepting much of what they have discovered and the report’s key points are sensible. But, two main conclusions are unsurprising and disappointing: more money and better leadership.

There will never be enough money, so we need to think differently about how we organise care itself. More leadership is a typical lament which says that the people responsible for the service haven’t done what they need to do. When I read reports such as this that call for more leadership I can only shake my head that they were not able to think further about the underlying causal landscape.

Their use of tipping point language is useful, though, as it does suggest catastrophic, rather than incremental, changes are likely. A tipping point means a move from one state to another (like tipping over the milk pitcher), where other factors come into play (otherwise it wouldn’t be tipping!). That suggests that there will be a change of state in which the old rules are unlikely to apply or be useful. After Kuhn, we call this a paradigm shift. Edward de Bono characterises two situations: one he called a problem, where you use existing rules; the other is a crisis for which you need new rules. My take is that the NHS is moving into territory where the need for different thinking is more important than problem-solving. That healthcare is a complex (wicked) and adaptive system should alert us and not surprise us that solutions create new problems and indeed crises.

Based on the report, though, we’re more likely to see hyperactive civil servants and NHS “leaders” rushing about with Powerpoint presentations full of exhortations and flow charts, accountability matrices and maps. We’ve tried that so often, one wonders if there are any other tools in the box. However, that the current state of affairs may have been caused by past reform and changes is an important insight, but to argue for essentially what is more of the same is plain silly. If past actions have destabilised cancer services and tipping is likely, then new thinking and new rules are needed. Did I miss something in the report?

If we take the simple flow of patients through the system, we are told the rate of entry is rising as GPs shift to ‘urgent’ referral, presumably the only way they know to get an oncologist’s attention, but the velocity through the system hasn’t changed. Why should that be surprising when resources are rigid and constrained by NHS structures (such as lack of effective transfer of patient information), and what appears to be performance measurement of the wrong things, creating perverse incentives.

The diagnostic phase is what appears to be rate-limiting across the patient and treatment pathway and hence is the primary blockage. While increased investment in diagnostics would be timely, how to do that is where a paradigm shift is needed. The delay in procuring proton beam equipment (so much in the news) illustrates the procurement logic that undermines service delivery. Entrepreneurial creation of free-standing diagnostic centres, providing on-demand services to oncologists and patients would be one way to deal with this. Does the NHS need to own the equipment, labs etc. or does it just need access to the service? By-passing the GP would also be another option, as the gatekeeping function appears to be another form of avoidable delay (ask women how long it took for ovarian cancer, for instance). Would it not be better for patients to access directly oncology diagnostic centres, which might also speed GP referral in turn?

The policy-down focus on leadership has clearly produced organisations of dubious purpose, but with evocative titles: Clinical Senate. Wow! But systems are judged by their performance, not what they’re called. A focus on leadership shifts cognitive priorities from a service orientation to one of lining up organisational structures, job descriptions, role definitions and mandates, meetings, minutes, but distractions if the challenge is where the rubber meets the road. The intersection of patient with system defines the leadership challenge, not the other way round.

So, what is to be done? I don’t buy the authors’ argument that change-weary people don’t need more change. They may embrace the logic of wholesale paradigm change if it got rid of the nonsense that stops them from doing what needs to be done. My take is that there is a strong case to be made for unbundling cancer services (this logic can apply in other clinical service areas, too) defined by the demands of the patient pathway. I would also look for ways to encourage entrepreneurial solutions, particularly in the form of investment in diagnostic technologies, and in enabling oncologists to work autonomously with each other and with patients. This would call time on the hospitals’ monopoly control of oncologists, cancer diagnosis, testing, and services, which is organisationally rate-limiting, and many of the identified problems are consequences of a system subjected to serious rate-limiting blockers, but lacking the ability to alter its structure to bypass, elminate, or reform those blockers.

In the end, the report is a narrative exhortation to get people to meet and plan to do what they are currently not able to do, or otherwise they would have done what needed to be done. Why not?

 

 

11-country Commonwealth Fund: The sting in the tail for number 1

The US-based Commonwealth Fund has released a new 11-country comparative ranking of health systems. See the diagram. commonwealth fund table

Before the UK pops the champagne corks, let’s decode this ranking a little bit. Oh yes, before we also get too excited, rankings like this are useful only as a discusion tool. What does it say say operationally, if you had to choose a system to be ill in?

In effect the UK is tops and the US bottom, overall. But there are some disturbing issues with the data that necessitate a reflective pause.

If the UK is 1 for Quality of Care, and 1 or 3 for Access, and 1 for Efficiency, why doesn’t that translate into Healthy Lives? If the US is middling for these, which it appears to be, are we surprised that they have poor efficiency, equity and healthy lives?

What strikes me is that the UK despite having scored 1, that all this effective care, etc. is really ineffective as it doesn’t translate into better results. Efficiency, too, seems a technical measure, and one which also seems to fail to translate. So two quite different systems on the ground, and which are poles apart on the ranking, are competing with each other for impact on people’s healthy lives.

If we look at the other countries through that same lens, we’re struck by how much better they are at driving improved results (in the jargon of the Fund: mortality amenable to medical care, infant mortality, and healthy life expectancy at age 60. It seems to me on this basis, that while France has poor access (really!), it produces the highest ranking for Healthy Lives. Now isn’t that the point of having a healthcare system in the first place? Something else is going on that this ranking is illustrating but which isn’t being drawn out from any commentary,

So, my summary:

  1. The reason the US is last on Healthy Lives is mainly ideological and not for a lack of trying to things better, but regretfully, only for those who have insurance cover, with eye-watering variances from state to state. I do find this surprising to some extent as the US is very well served by a research community that analyses costs and treatment flows and the ability of payers to drive incentives into the system. Perhaps the distributional inequity of access will pass the reform, while the relative inefficiency may be a measure of the tolerance of a wealthy country has for ensuring people who can afford the care do in fact get it. Hmmmm.
  2. The failure of the UK to translate all those 1’s into Healthy Lives is evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the design of the health care system to actually deliver care itself and a fetish with structural reform, rather than organisational reforms which would enable other models of care to emerge. This focus on driving out variance actually drives out innovation rather than enables it: the UK’s public health system eats its young and fails to bury its dead, so the system goes round and round, in some massive holding pattern and people wonder why things don’t change. The system is efficient once you get the care and access, at least defined in terms of general practice is great, but waiting times for tests and access to the hospital based specialists doesn’t really translate well into timeliness. I question the 3 for the UK as countries with direct access to specialists enjoy much quicker access to care and this indeed does translate into the higher Healthy Lives rankings we see.
  3. I’m not sure how you can have a healthcare system that scores 10 for effective care and 2 for Healthy Lives. If you’re getting ineffective care, wouldn’t that translate into poorer results like in Sweden? Hmmmm, again.
  4. It is interesting to see how poorly performing very wealthy Norway is, but then it has a state-run monoply health system. But again, how can you square all those 11’s?  Are the poor results evidence that a state-run bureaucracy is not working? Probably.
  5. Canada’s system is a fragmented mess at the best of times, and affected by a powerful mythology about its performance, premissed mainly on it not being like the US. Restrictions on patient access to care are systemic, and designed in by the slavish belief in the Canada Health Act prohibiting alternatives. A real policy straitjacket, I think.
  6. Finally, the one’s that in the middle, so to speak, Australia, Netherlands, Switzerland may be more worthy of further consideration.

 

Health Data: the problem of distinguishing between public and private sectors

The Wanderer above a sea of fog by Caspar Davi...

Why limit your view when you can see this far? The Wanderer above a sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich, around 1818 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Open Data Era in Health and Social Care”, prepared by GovLab (NYU) has been released.

I have no issue with open data, and the more open the better. However, doctrine may interfere in respect of the way data are viewed in the UK.

The typical model is to focus on the NHS, as the main provider of healthcare services. Certainly, this makes good sense, on its own. But the NHS is not on its own. The title is a bit misleading, in that while Social Care in included, the English NHS this is not integrated, suffers from bureaucratic accounting rules that prohibit pooling of budgets (hence the problems with the Better Care Fund), coupled with means testing, a cash market, and a major role of charities in filling in service gaps. Countries with patient-copayments and transaction data manage to integrate health and social care around the patient because of the ability to avoid arbitary distinctions between provider types and their ownership. As a result of what is both a strength and weakness of the NHS, policymakers have had and continue to have considerable conceptual difficulty integrating public and private provision into a patient-centric and whole-system model of seamless care.

Healthcare is bigger than the NHS as people in the UK can buy private health/medical insurance, pay cash for private treatment or use private hospitals under NHS contracts. In addition, patients seek services from dentists, physiotherapists and pharmacists, and others, who in the main are outside the NHS in terms of practice patterns.

Let’s take medicines. Years ago the NHS explored electronic prescribing, a project initiative I was doing some policy work on. I had asked whether private prescriptions and dental prescriptions were to be included and was told, no, they were excluded as this was an NHS project. Of course, thinking such as this means that they were failing to look at the whole system of medicines prescribing. A patient for instance who is prescribed an antibiotic by a dentist (and they prescribe a lot of antibiotics) would discover not only that that information was not available to their GP, but the GP would likely not know that dental surgery had even taken place. And private/independent prescriptions were simply off the table!

The only way that Open Data Era thinking can prevail is when the English NHS and the Department of Health adopt whole systems thinking. The modern world is full of boundaries that are being breached by new technologies, that are challenging assumptions of the past that in the future will prove dysfunctional.

The NYU report (I am surprised at the lack of whole-system perspective — perhaps they didn’t know about the wider health system??) does not address the distinction between NHS and private/independent data (though they do make the point that Open Data might be used along with private or independently held data, but in the context of my remarks, this seems a fudge).

I won’t go into a detailed analysis of their logic model on page 45 of the report which crystalises their essential argument. Logic models are conceptual models that link various elements (inputs, outputs, outcomes) to desired impact in a coherent (logical) way. Needless to say, they start with NHS data. Examining the Activities/Outputs parts, would suggest that the full realisation of the stated benefits will not be possible. Limiting the data in, as the model does, means that achieving operational efficiency or resource allocation (impacts) will lack private sector comparators for instance. One output, Policies Created/Changed, is immediately compromised by the inability of the model to account for the role of the independent/private and not-for-profit sectors, which is about 10% of the total activity and expenditure. Indeed, their definition of ‘internal users’  (page 48) excludes non-NHS entitities, and they aren’t seen as ‘external users’ who might need to access NHS data. Furthermore, the approaches proposed to capture measurement limits the focus to state-mandated bodies (i.e. NHS), and therefore limits the ability of measurement to assess potentially new approaches to care that may be invented. So much for measuring innovation.

It would have been better to start  with the needs of data users and their objectives, in a whole system approach. This is the fundamental weakness in the logic model and limits the report considerabley. In the end, it makes me worry that the initiative will in the longer run fail to be as successful as it might be.As Einstein said: “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.”

Speaking truth to power and the quality of policy-making

Ann Glover, as reported on Euractiv (here):

But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. …

To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’. However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda. “If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.

Disturbing stuff. In my role as an advisor and having taught policy development to civil servants, I have emphasised their responsibility to “speak truth to power”. If, as Glover says, this isn’t happening within the European policy-making machinery, then that may explain much policy creep at the Commission level.

Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour

The policy process: Not what Ann Glover has in mind? Source: Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour (Photo credit: Product of Newfoundland)

Her characterisation of European civil servants wind-up toys, that just run off and do what they are told suggests there could be some danger to good governance from hyperactive civil servants who unthinkingly do what they’re told with dossiers that should be binned. This suggest two things problems: the first is the quality of guidance on developing policy options itself, how to work with external advisors (carefully by the way) and the second is that the interface between the most senior level and Commissioners lacks candour and the failure of the most senior to truth to power. This is evidence of cowardice. at least, and incompetence at most.

Her remarks suggest that perhaps Glover hasn’t also been particularly effective elevating the evidence base of policy-making itself.  Her solution, though, is seriously flawed. She seems to believe that it is possible to create a definitive evidence base around which all can agree and that it is indeed possible in policy processes to factor out the political dimension. The ‘symmetry of ignorance’ [see NOTES below] explains why a room full of experts don’t usually agree and why it is relatively easy for ‘my’ experts to challenge ‘your’ experts. Policy problems are complex, sometimes called wicked, problems, and that means that one single course of action is unlikely, that interventions may create new problems, and unlike (scientific) problems, you may not know when you’ve solved the problem (called ‘the stopping’ problem).

What science dislikes is absence of agreement (e.g. science is about proof, not consensus), whereas policy is about consensus and disagreement: the result is one of the following: do nothing, act from the precautionary principle (i.e. do something just in case, but knowing there isn’t really any good evidence), guess, compromise or satisficing [see NOTES below].  Scientists often believe that evidence leads unequivocally to specific policy actions, but this is just one view of the world. While Glover has claimed to provide independent advice, she has actualy provided ‘her’ advice, reflecting how she weighs the balance of evidence against her understanding and framing of the problems and choices on offer from what she has read, and the people she has spoken to. One could legitimately ask whether her academic roots and scientific preferences as a biologist have preconditioned her towards thinking about policy problems and evidence in a particular way.That does not detract from her alarm at the policy machinery, but does inform our assessment of her proposed solution.

Hasn’t anyone read Feyerabend?

Therefore, purely technocratic policy governance, as I think Glover is advocating, is flawed and likely dangerous as it replaces the messiness of the real world of policy problems and choice-making with tidy authoritarianism.

Equally worrying is her comment on the quality of advice from paid consultants. I once put a dossier to a DG to be be an advisor, but haven’t been called (we’re up to almost 3 years, so I guess I shouldn’t expect the phone to ring!)  It is the job of advisors to advise, and that means also saying when something is not a good idea. That the European Commission has constructed a giant out-sourced advisory industry is not surprising as it is actually a tactic to cement the European project by creating an advisory system that works in harmony with the Commission’s objectives. That so many consultancies have fallen for this trick and taken the bait is disappointing but not surprising.

Many of the Commission-funded consultancy reports I have read have started and ended with the merits of the proposed Commission actions. I can’t recall a report that said something shouldn’t be done. It is also a tactic in assessing policy options (what Glover refers to as risk assessment) to write the most about the favoured option and less about the least favoured option.I blogged here on a Commission consultancy meeting, the cost of which was no doubt staggering; the Commissioner spoke on what she wanted, everyone agreed, the presentations showed how Europe would be a better place if this were done and everyone agreed with everyone, had a nice lunch and the many unpaid interns took notes for their CVs to PR firms or consultancies so they could get more work. And so the system feeds itself by indoctrinating people into the world of uncritical agreement.

Now, for disclosure, I have been ticked off by Commission civil servants for things I’ve said that were not European Commission

doctrine. Perhaps that explains why my dossier is in a box on the bottom shelf.

NOTE:

Symmetry of Ignorance: The expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants in a wicked problem. There is a symmetry of ignorance among those who participate because nobody knows better by virtue of his degrees or his status. There are no experts (which is irritating for experts), and if experts there are, they are only experts in guiding the process of dealing with a wicked problem, but not for the subject matter of the problem. Source: Horst Rittel, 1972 “On the planning crisis”.

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.

The logic of reform

Domino Spiral

Death spiral or solution? (Photo credit: FracturedPixel)

There is a flurry of alarmist writing on the financial state of the NHS at the moment. Solutions are usually three: spend more, spend less, find money from other places.

These are not solutions but facts of state involvement in healthcare. While I would not disagree that financing issues are important, they do not alone define the problem. Choices of funding mechanisms are essentially political in most countries and hence reflect the usual rhetoric of political positions. Is there another way forward?

Let me begin by saying that many problems arise because of the descriptive models used and which limit creativity. The NHS has been compared to a supertanker, hard to turn around — so change the story to a school of fish (in organisational terms: greater autonomy and decision-making within smaller functional units). Candace Imison at the King’s Fund wrote recently on her blog that NHS reform was like ripping up plants in a garden and then sticking them back (or in policy terms: reform was careless and presumably didn’t pay enough respect to the fabric of the garden itself). Models such as this summarise a position, without the necessity of intellectual substance. May we be delivered from this.

I prefer to start my policy analysis at the other end, so to speak. What results do we want from healthcare systems and what do we need to realise those results. Keep in mind the current underlying logic of the NHS policy stems from a period that the majority of the population have no experience of, when the UK faced existential risks and government had almost no policy levers to do what needed to be done, except to take over and run the whole show. While evolved over the years, the essential organising logic of the NHS has not changed. Today, though, we have more nuanced policy instruments available, including much better educated clinical expertise, public literacy, higher general standards of education, better ways of looking after the health of people (not perfect, just better) and importantly the ability (not yet realised) of using information better, in real time, predictively, and to anticipate rather than react to healthcare needs of people.

What we do need to do is avoid the death spiral into thinking healthcare is only about funding (“health economics does not equal health policy” hard though that may be for some). Funding is in fact a policy tool, not an outcome. Regardless of how the money is provided, how it is used is what matters.

My suggestion to avoid this dealth spiral is to think about why disconnects arising from financial handoffs cause such major problems with service, impact patient care so badly and contribute to poorer rather than better outcomes. Indeed, my view is that there is enough money (the evidence is pretty clear that outcomes do not correlate with percentage of GDP spent, but on the organisation of care itself) but it will never actually be enough, so we need to be creative, not profligate.

One way forward is to embed payment in the patient, who is the only person to actually experience integrated care (i.e. care that is not disintermediated by funding gaps). The logic of patient action triggers connectivity amongst disparate providers and the patient takes on the responsibility for the stewardship of their own care. The NHS trivialises the potentially disruptive impact of patient choice by financially disempowering that choice as policymakers fear the consequences of disruption more than poor care. Many of the disconnects in NHS and social care are constructs of policy logic constrained by untenable premises. This is not so much about patient empowerment, but the consequences to the structure of healthcare delivery when patient actions determine the funding flows. Berwick and colleagues Triple Aim, which I have operationalised into a decision tool [email me], depends on the ability to intervene and set priorities within a whole-system view of healthcare. This is not hard. The will to do this is.

Organisational logic and clinical will-power alone will not be sufficient to integrate care — if that were true, then the last 20 years in the NHS should be the golden age of integrated care! But what is necessary (but not sufficient) is the ability to redesign and flexibly innovate and introduce change in service structure locally. We will no doubt hear a lot about accountable care organisations from the US, and like in so many cases, UK folk will flock off on site visits to tour these (stopping off for some shopping along the way). ACOs are interesting because they are an organisational solution to care integration (they are also a response to how provider performance will impact their income so survival is part of the logic here). There is nothing difficult about merging health and social care, as long as the providers of these can merge. It is, in this case, not about the money, but about the logic of organisational design for purpose. Regretfully, for the NHS, there is a fear of disruptive new entrants into care delivery. Policy objectives are constrained by two rules: the first is that there is no real (by that I mean meaningful)  failure regime (which is really a set of rules about financial viability) and second that there is a general avoidance within NHS policymaking of the creative destruction of publicly funded institutions (which is a rule about the prudential use of taxpayers’ money).

One last point is about the patient’s entry point to healthcare itself and the logic of general practice as a policy instrument to deliver primary care. I am worried that there are untested assumptions about general practice. I have asked whether general practice is fit for purpose, taking into account questions about what purpose general practice is supposed to have. If general practice is to meaningfully achieve its potential, then we need to see greater care integration around the general practice itself. This is a simple logic that suggests that services should migrate to the point at which they are most used or needed. Obvious examples are at least three. The first is that public over-reliance on accident and emergency (or emergency rooms) reflects a lack of timely resource availability in general practice. (US research shows that emergency room users have insurance and could use their GP, but for the lack of being open). So there is some logic in anchoring around GPs emergency care services. Hospitals, with their own integration logic, can extend their services into general practice (I worked in a hospital that did just that) — this is called the innovator’s dilemma and reflects the inability of incumbents (GPs) to meet their own challenges but we are faced with the fear of disruptive new entrants. The second is that patients often experience a diagnostic revolving door between GPs and hospitals/specialists, until they get a diagnosis and treatment. UK evidence is stark here with delayed diagnosis for many cancers, and I’ll highlight ovarian cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurological disorders. What we need in general practice is direct access to specialists such as oncologists, neurologists and cardiologists and break the monopoly control by hospitals of these services. The third is whether there is an appetite for general practice to unbundle acute services into primary care, or for hospitals to vertically integrate into primary care. Some wil say, ah, polyclinics, tried that. Well, they weren’t tried. In fact many innovations from abroad have been tried and failed because of the failure of the system to alter its underlying assumptions. The Evercare programme from the US failed in the UK because the test sites would not send cardiologists into people’s homes — the essential enabling logic of the Evercare programme itself. Failure dogs NHS innovations because of the inability to alter assumptions (perhaps the new CEO of NHS England Simon Stevens will reflect on how his former employer, UnitedHealthcare achieved such good results over such a long perid of time and why the NHS failed). (have a look at this for some evidence)

In any case, I hold little hope for disruptive entrants or solutions that challenge the NHS paradigm. The strenght of the funding glue is far too great to let that happen.

UK Balance of EU Competencies Review of Health: first thoughts

The UK government is releasing, over time, its review of the balance of competencies of EU legislation. Within the first 6 papers released is the one on Health, Review of the Balance of Competencies between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Health.

At minimum, these reviews provide a timely perspective on this balance of competencies, and provides a focus for further commentary. Other EU members states may find it useful to be reminded what this balance is. It is not always in the interests of the European project to look at all things taken together as it shows whether overall the claimed benefits are in fact there. But such policy review, if that is another way of talking about them, does draw a line in the sand against which to measure and assess changes in the future, and avoids the problem of the boiled frog syndrome, where small incremental changes are not noticed until it is too late.

Health is a funny subject for the EU as it is both inside and outside the European competency box, depending on how you define things. Countries can run their healthcare systems broadly as they wish, and maintain control of financing, but the European Court of Justice, in a variety of decisions, has defined the contours of that national control, as seen through the lens of the single market, and freedom of movement of goods and services in particular — both of which are agnostic with respect to health. It all depends whether you think of healthcare systems commercially or socially. That hospitals are socially beneficial but also commercial entities does not help, any more than drugs as goods flowing across EU borders, and so on.

The report concludes in the main that the balance is about right. There is little argument with the benefits of European action in medicines regulation, public health, tobacco, etc. Where the UK has a problem is with employment policy as it impacts the UK more generally and the National Health Service specifically. Different logic of the relationship between the employee and the workplace applies in the UK and this throws up a wide range of relevant issues.

The Working Time Directive is the elephant in the room here. The concerns are how the NHS structures clinical work, trains junior doctors, and generally organises itself to provide for continuity of care. Other countries, not just the European ones, have the same concerns about over-worked doctors. The heroic fictional doctors on television, who nap on couches and awake fully prepped to save patients is fantasy. Next time you’re in mid-Atlantic, be grateful your pilots got a good night’s sleep. The criticism of the WTD is more an indictment of the inability of the NHS and its massive provider infrastructure to put in place appropriate patient management systems that ensure a sensible balance of workload and rest. But the Health Paper makes the point that the European Court’s judgements have actually further constrained operational flexibily within the NHS. While the paper notes that the NHS operates on a 24 hour system, it actually doesn’t as it isn’t fully staffed on weekends, and many services operate within a traditional working hour day (e.g. laboratories, imaging). Much of this arises from the politically influenced structure of the NHS which has made it very difficult for alternative providers to enter the healthcare market in the UK, and thus offer relevant services, whether day-case surgery, or imaging, at times more convenient to patients. However, other countries in Europe appear able to manage demand and service provision more easily, so one much wonder why the NHS problems of their own doing.

The other area that exercises the NHS is free movement of patients. Medical tourism is a big issue in the UK, as its health system is based on residency. Social insurance systems have built often formidable barriers to gaining healthcare cover because they generally link the insurability with the workplace. Self-employed individuals are frequently disenfranchised from full benefits, and often pay disproportionately. Retired people continue to need insurance. But an insurance system does make cross-border transactions much easier. The UK has not really understand the operational dimension of the differences for UK taxpayers moving within Europe. The Limosa Convention is not mentioned in the briefing, while the European Health Insurance Card is. The EHIC is only really for tourists and retired people and the paper promotes the benefits of them. However, the EHIC is not for people temporarily located in another country for employment or work purposes.  They do not refer to the bureaucratic overhang of the A1 and S1 forms needed for people working in other EU countries and the forum-shopping associated with it as countries seek to get ‘the other country’ to pay the bills. I wonder how many people realise they need an S1 to run a seminar in another country as this is defined as work, or that working from home and living in country A while your office is in country B could be a bureaucratic nightmare. The report is silent here.