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.