What’s a finance minister to do?

With public finances in most countries looking pretty challenged these days, what steps can central jurisdictions take to achieve two key health policy goals:

  1. reduce the overall healthcare expenditure by bending the cost curve down,
  2. improve productivity, value-for-money, health outcomes.

Few in government have much experience with reducing healthcare expenditures.  And ministers are rightfully fearful of voter wrath, so one must wonder where the political courage will come from in the first place. Perhaps the key thing is denial is not an option, neither is blame-fixing. The first rule, therefore, is to fix the problem, not the blame.  True statesmanship is now needed, more so than party political rhetoric; that is, of course if we are right that things are in a really bad way.

Few, too, in healthcare management have the necessary experience with substantial changes needed in healthcare delivery systems especially where resource constraints will need to similarly deliver productivity gains.  We’ve had tremendous growth in healthcare expenditure matched with uptake of new technologies, complex treatments, and greater clinical specialisation. We can simply do more, and it costs. But along with this rise in capability, there has been much less reform of the way healthcare is done. Clinical workflows continue to be clogged with unneeded activity; we still use expensive hospitals when less expensive polyclinics or primary care settings would do. We fail to exploit the full potential of the other health professions, such as nurses and pharmacists. The second rule, is that you cannot continue to fund an unreforming health system.

Reform must be a constant feature of healthcare, since it is so dynamic as an area of innovation. If we want to bend the cost curve down, we need to persist in reform, indeed, disruptive reform, creative destruction in healthcare service delivery.  It is not about being nasty as a finance minister, it is all about using the money to unleash creativity to the benefit of all.

The challenge is less how to do that though, than wondering why what is there about healthcare today that seems to keep that from happening in the first place. Now that is really something to wonder about.