Category Archives: Ideas: Good

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.


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.

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.

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

Europe’s robots to become ‘electronic persons’ under draft plan. Reuters.

First 3D-printed drug just unveiled: welcome to the future of 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. [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.

The Cognologist’s European Blog is rated influential in Europe

Visualization of the Influence Landscape

Visualising Influence

The Policy Cognologist also maintains a European policy blog, Euro-Sante/Euro-Health. Waggener-Edstrom Worldwide conducted a study of the most influential policy oriented blogs in Europe and I am delighted that my blog was rated amongst the most influential specialist blogs.

There is also activity on Twitter about the influence of the blogs in the study in the EU at #bbs10. You can also request a copy of the report with ratings of all the blogs, specialist and general at Waggener-Edstrom.

The report makes for interesting reading. One observation is the relative greater influence of generalist policy blogs over specialist ones; the highest rated is written by someone from the BBC. Others by folk with less illustrious affiliations, but no less important things to say.

I am pleased though to be counted amongst such company.

Overall, the blogs represent efforts by many people across Europe to put ideas forward with varying degrees of success or recognition. The world wide web creates amazing opportunities for fresh ideas to be presented in easy and accessible forms. Blogs can be updated quickly and with RSS feeds, interested individuals can receive notifications of new posts. Whether internet search engines effectively identify blog entries is another matter. Blogs operate in the real world in real time and with rankings such as Waggener-Edstrom’s, the task is much easier for bloggers with important things to say to be heard.

On a cautionary note, policy processes within the EU and government depend on having accessing to fresh ideas and knowledgable people. But in my experience, they can fail to engage with emerging influencers, as well as with individuals who lack official, recognised or organisational positions to give them ‘organisational cover’ as it were. Influence and quality of thinking depends more on the cogency of the writer’s knowledge and ability to craft succinct argument, than the reputation of their employer (and perhaps the EU puts too much emphasis on the latter).

The Grand Challenges of Modern (indebted) Governments

Daily we read of the debts that governments have run up, whether Greece, Hungary, UK or elsewhere. How has this come to pass will require all of us to reflect on what we expect from government and indeed what is government for. Folks such as Robert Nozick argued for the minimal state, all the way over to the bankrupted ideology of the collectivist state. In between lies reality.

Therefore, in the spirit of redefining the purpose and function of the modern state, I am asking this question:

what are the Grand Challenges for modern government?

In effect, what is the purpose of government? What is on the list will reflect the current priorities, but also an effort to anticipate the consequences of current actions by public bodies — if governments stop doing some things, what will happen down the road.

Here is some to get us going. I think we need 10 at the most as they must in the be both grand and challenges; my list may in the end be neither, but let’s see.

Boundary value problem for an arbitrary shape

Like any good challenge, one needs to know what is in the problem, what is outside the problem and line that demarcates the two

  1. A challenge is to ensure that governments are subjected to the same rules and regulations as everyone else.  Someone said, it would be a shame to waste a good crisis, so many governments find themselves in a crisis, and in many cases they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Governments have some role to pay in aligning efforts to solve the crisis, but they are not exempt from the solutions.
  2. A challenge is to design a simple tax system. We don’t need governments to create complex, full of exceptions tax systems. We have complex tax systems that have becomes ends in themselves, inscrutable and reflecting overly bureaucratic approaches. Rebooting our logic of taxation is a non-trivial challenge. The problem though is that governments use financial instruments as carrots and sticks to alter behaviour, whether of individuals or corporations. We need to rethink our use of financial instruments as tools of policy and that these financial instruments must deliver social outcomes, not just be used to fund government programmes.
  3. A challenge is to better control adventuresome, rent-seeking behaviour of civil servants.  Too often, hyperactive civil servants follow a logic of state intervention because in the end it may be easier to do and please political masters, than to do the harder, consultative and more developmental approach which will produce the best outcomes, but with the least amount of government. The problem is that civil servants are rent-seeking, and are rewarded for expansionist activities. We see this with regulators who either do their jobs badly (regulators are after all monopoly suppliers of regulation, so if they do a bad job, we the regulated have little choice), or seek to expand the scope of their mandates, like a gas (there is always some reason to expand a mandate, when there is no one to say no). To be fair, the private sector also has adventuresome corporate executives who need to prove themselves through adventuresome corporate mergers and acquisitions — fortunately they don’t always get their way, such as the shareholder response to the plans of the relatively new CEO at Prudential (on the job only 5 months and he thought this made sense). The challenge here is a general problem, but acute in government.
  4. A challenge is for governments need to know how to recognise market failure, and having identified this, decide what they should do it anything. Is there market failure in funding medical research, is there market failure in higher education? Understanding this will help define the boundaries of the government role, and importantly define the boundary conditions that tell us that different logic and problem solving is needed. At the root, we need to  first decide what the role of government should really be. Integral to this is determining a proportional response — in other words, there is identifying the need for intervention, and there is separately deciding what to do, how much to do, and importantly when to stop.
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Bonfire of the health system vanities: poly-mess

Firefighters trying to save an abandoned conve...

Lawmakers burning discredited health policies

‘Significantly, the core principles (and expected savings) of polysystems have proven difficult to achieve with more focus on the buildings rather than the changes to care and behaviours.’

So says a recently hitherto secret report that NHS London (UK) has been sitting on. What a surprise though. Healthcare change is difficult and the focus on so-called polysystems missed the point. In origin, they are really polyclinics, and well-designed would cut admission rates to secondary care; they would also bulk up on specialist services, including day-care work and short-stay facilities.

A bureaucratic orientation driven by doctrinaire thinking and misaligned incentives are clearly to blame, plus, of course, a fear, within the NHS of actual service reconfiguration and change that alters the structure and nature of clinical work.

Whether the new UK government coalition should actually stop the polysystems (a euphemism too far, I fear) is another question, as the underlying logic, used successfully in other countries is sound.  What really failed was management, and the vaunted commissioning system, which failed to demand, perhaps even conceptualise, service changes. No doubt, resistance from the clinical professions may have no small part in failure, but clinicians are been substantially disenfranchised from NHS reform, with the top-down, initiative driven thinking.

Less is more. Few but more substantial changes, may ultimately lead to the service and quality improvements.

Polyclinics are a missed opportunity, and having been badly conceived are now a tainted option. The political pull back to the status quo becomes a real a risk, when in fact greater effort than ever is needed to improve service delivery and productivity.

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A federal approach to cross-border healthcare in the European Union

The map shows the results of a Eurobarometer p...
One Europe, divided by borders

With the release of the European Commission’s communication on cross-border health services [Communication from the Commission, follow-up to the high level reflection process on patient mobility and healthcare developments in the European Union, COM(2004) 301 final, 20 April 2004] and the proposed services directive which will implement the various rulings of the European Court of Justice on cross-border health care [Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Services in the Internal Market, COM(2004) 2 final, 13 January 2004], momentum will now build to really understand the potential for a European health system.  While a wholly integrated “European Health Service” seems unlikely, the status quo is also not sustainable.  So what is to be done?  One approach is to learn from countries with federal health systems, where responsibilities are split between the national/federal government and lower levels of jurisdiction, and how they accommodate the different objectives of service delivery at one level, and integration of systems at another.

Canada offers a particularly interesting example since its highly decentralised health system is composed of the autonomous health systems of the provinces, with a federal Canada Health Act [Canada Health Act, 1984] to enshrine particular national standards.  Such an approach offers a way forward for the EU since it recognises that there are legitimate issues that overarch the responsibilities of member states, yet accords to the member states their own sphere of autonomy.

The Canada Health Act sets out specific standards which form the cornerstone of the health system’s national design:

  1. public administration: the administration of the health care insurance plan of a province or territory must be carried out on a non-profit basis by a public authority;
  2. comprehensiveness: all medically necessary services provided by hospitals and doctors must be insured;
  3. universality: all insured persons in the province or territory must be entitled to public health insurance coverage on uniform terms and conditions;
  4. portability: coverage for insured services must be maintained when an insured person moves or travels within Canada or travels outside the country; and
  5. accessibility: reasonable access by insured persons to medically necessary hospital and physician services must be unimpeded by financial or other barriers.

The important step that the EU must take is to move beyond the development of a purely bureaucratic approach to cross-border health care (by simply making existing regulations more complex [Council Regulation (EEC) No 1408/71 of 14 June 1971 on the application of social security schemes to employed persons and their families moving within the Community]) and embrace a few good principles.  I would propose the following as a starting point, to create a simple basis (no mean feat in European affairs!) for member states, the Council of Ministers and the Commission to establish the basis for an agreed approach:

  1. portability: insured individuals may seek health services throughout the EU in a uniform manner;
  2. accessibility: reasonable access is assured to insured individuals to medically necessary health care with fair administration of cross-border entitlements;
  3. comprehensiveness: all medically necessary care that meets international standards is covered;
  4. accountability: consistency of services and adherence to standards across the EU is provided by public bodies.

It would be a good founding agenda for the new ”High Level Group on Health Services and Medical Care” to explore whether principles such as these might provide a cornerstone for cross-border health services in Europe.

Learning from federal health systems will reveal the potential scope for a European agenda, driven by shared values and principles.  It is important and timely for health care professionals, policy makers and everyone concerned with health to understand the implications of greater Europeanisation of health care as it will drive much of the logic around quality, standards and accreditation to the EU level.  But this will also require greater scrutiny that can only come from a single, EU-level tier.  That is why key design principles, such as the ones suggested, are needed.

Having a set of guiding principles will help to ensure that future European health care developments are sensible, productive, transparent and benefit us all, while respecting national and European interests.

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Counterfeit medicines are a global threat to human health

The mortar and pestle is an international symb...
A tainted symbol of trust

How can I be sure the medicine I take is genuine?  In some countries, there is an almost even chance that it is counterfeit; not just a cheap substitute, but a real fake,  ineffective,  probably harmful, and maybe fatal.  Some counterfeit medicines were found in Hamilton, Ontario, earlier this year and the pharmacist has now been charged by the RCMP.

Counterfeit medicines are a global problem, with trade estimated to exceed US $36 billion a year.  The World Health Organization estimates 8-10% of all drugs supplied globally are counterfeit.  The European Union estimates counterfeit drugs cost their health systems €1.5 billion annually.

Counterfeits are a clear and present danger to human health.  Africa is threatened by counterfeit AIDS drugs, while in Haiti, Nigeria, and Bangladesh almost 500 mainly children were killed from fake paracetamol syrup.  Perhaps 192,000 people were killed in 2001 in China from counterfeit medicines.  Counterfeits circulate in the European Union, with two recent cases in the UK alone.  And Canada.

Fake medicines are hazardous, with documented toxicity, instability and ineffectiveness but few people are experts in pill authentication (even pharmacists get fooled).  Counterfeit drugs are easier to make — in portable cement mixers – and fake than money.  But there is little patients can do but rely on assurances by others that drugs are genuine.  That may not be good enough.

Our health and medicines regulators believe there isn’t a problem because there are few cases.  But recent research in Europe counters this regulatory denial with evidence that regulators have little hard evidence on the scale of counterfeiting.  Problems with medicines are rarely associated with the drug being fake.

Counterfeit medicines don’t just show up in the local pharmacy, they are infiltrated into the supply and distribution of legitimate medicines by rogue, criminal organizations and individuals, who specifically target the weaknesses in this system.  But counterfeiting is seen as a patent issue not the criminal act it is.

Once a medicine has been factory sealed by the pharmaceutical manufacturer, there is no assurance that it will reach the patient unopened; a pharmacist and doctor can open it.  However, there are companies with the licensed authority to repackage factory-sealed medicines with new labels in new languages.  Unscrupulous distributors can conceal the illegal substitution of counterfeits within our apparently highly regulated system.  Canada, a net importer of medicines, is vulnerable from this as it imports medicines from countries that are known sources of counterfeit medicines.

While US/Canada medicines trade has focused on internet pharmacies, the real problem the internet is also a counterfeit drug delivery system and a real problem by the US, which views Canada’s system as easily compromised by counterfeiters.

Therefore, we need to ensure that any tampering with a product’s factory packaging is clearly evident to others.  Using ‘drug provenance’ would show who has handled, opened or repackaged a product; another way is to use advanced ‘track-and-trace’ technologies such as radio-frequency tags (RFIDs) to track shipments of medicines and determine if they have been tampered with.  However, there are stricter controls in place to deal with the movement of cattle than medicines.

Nevertheless, things are slowly improving, with the US FDA promoting the use of RFIDs by 2007, and efforts to improve data collection on counterfeiting.  But there is little public awareness of this global threat, as regulators focus on the operation of pharmacies rather than the origin and safety of the medicines themselves.  Legal sanctions are often weak, or inappropriate, considering the grave health risk counterfeit medicines represent.

The way forward will require ‘counterfeit proofing’ the supply and distribution of medicines.  The criminal law needs rethinking to link human health and counterfeit medicines.  Good data is needed to inform our actions and understanding to ensure appropriate regulation.  Finally, the problem must be viewed as a global one and Canada could show international leadership in proposing solutions in an area were there is common cause amongst regulators, health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, and healthcare organizations.

The health system works on the basis of trust, and patients must trust that the pills in that little bottle are what they are supposed to be.  But while the vast majority of drugs are perfectly legitimate, a more comprehensive solution to the problem of counterfeits is needed.

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