Is Simon Stevens the new NHS Wizard?

It is no doubt reassuring for many in the English NHS that Simon Stevens, the new CEO of NHS England, comes with new ideas — they don’t have to think so hard. I guess people have forgotten their criticisms when he left the UK to work for a commercial provider: UnitedHealth, in the US.

What apparently has happened while he was in this rather different environment is that he has returned to the UK with a box load of fresh thinking.

However, he must be wondering why all those people concerned with improving healthcare services had not thought of them already. Why he has to do this is really worrisome as it is just further evidence that the NHS is a permission-seeking culture that takes ages to innovate even the most mundane improvements. I have no difficulty with what Stevens is saying, and I hope he legitimates even more radical initiatives, if all it takes is for him, like in Star Trek, to wave his arms and say “engage!” for people to get on the with jobs we all thought they went to work everyday to do!

We’ll hear a lot about the small hospitals idea now that it has been reignited as a ‘big idea’ (little idea?). People will now say that it is a good idea, timely, insightful. Or as one person on the news said today, that this is recalibrating what the NHS does. Hmmmm. Methinks the lack of insight into the problems that Stevens highlights with his comments is not reveletory, but just more evidence that the NHS eats its young. Perhaps we should listen less to the economists who are trying justify expenditure models in the Department of Health, and more to people with imaginative ideas to improve healthcare with the money they already have.

What Stevens seems to have learned from his time outside the UK and in the US (and I expect he’ll pepper his comments with examples from other countries, but the US is the innovation engine of note) is the need for healthcare providers and payers to be able to use their respective roles to improve care. So-called Obamacare mandates payer-side reform with a pluralistic perspective yet the English NHS has limited payer-side instruments to really drive reforms (despite CCGs). The ability to repurpose money is really important.  Providers for their part are struggling with health reform in the US but it is driving innovation. What is stopping NHS Foundation Trusts??

Some examples from the US:

1. Virginia Mason Medical Center worked with Intel to develop a totally new approach to organising care with a focus on creating “the perfect patient experience”. The underlying logic builds on Toyota’s Production System and was used to rethink clincial work and patient care processes. (see Kenney’s Transforming Health Care, CRC Press. Forward by Don Berwick by the way.)

2. The Mayo clinic has been working on the focused factory/solution factory model to rethink the alignment of patient case complexity and clinical organisation. Given work I’d been involved in the late 1990s was the first structured patient segmentation model ever used in the UK, moving toward a segmentation model is hardly rocket science anymore. (check out the May 2014 issue of Health Affairs, article on cardiovascular surgery by David Cook and colleagues at Mayo).

3. Michael Porter, of Harvard competitive strategy fame, is applying his considerable analytical models to healthcare. He wrote a great book, Redefining Healthcare, about the US, and did a powerful critique using similar models on the German healthcare system. I just wonder why he hasn’t done the UK….

4. Patient activation is on the agenda in the UK, following a recent paper from the King’s Fund. But why did it take a decade for them to discover something that is old-hat as an operational strategy to patient adherence. The problem in the NHS is that there is insufficient priority to spending money to anticipate care needs. I had a project to assess a project on how weather impacts acute exacerbations of COPD; all it took was a telephone call to tell people with COPD risk to stay home on days when the weather was for them risky. This sort of good thinking wasn’t continued, despite evidence that it worked. Oh well.

5. Berwick’s work, first published in Health Affairs, on the “Triple Aim”, is coming up to 8 years old, and it seems Wales and Scotland are using it, and Darzi and colleagues did write about it in a recent issue of Health Affairs, but it wasn’t published in the UK (perhaps the UK is poorly served by academic researchers or are publishing in obscure journals with paywalls to ensure dissemination is limited to subscribers). Triple Aim is a powerful analytical model to probe wasteful, dangerous and unsatisfactory care. I’ve been using the Triple Aim in my own work constructing decision architectures of patient treatment pathways, but the ability to convert the results of the analysis into action remains the sticking point. Payers haven’t been commissioning the work, and they are really the problem owners as much providers.

6. The Evercare programme, which Steven’s ex-employer runs, has been around in the US for over 30 years and involves, in part, specialists visiting at risk people at home and works well. The NHS tried to translate it to UK practice, but the key benefit, of home-visiting specialists, was implemented. The results was sub-optimal and probably a complete waste of time and money. Gravelle and colleagues produced an evalution in 2007, published in the BMJ.

Don’t misunderstand, many people working in the NHS want to make things better. The problem I have is why good ideas need to be permitted. I guess it is all about the politics of healthcare, but I thought the new model NHS was supposed to bury the supertanker logic and create bureaucratic distance to allow that.

The NHS solution to challenges is to bureaucratise them (create entities and bodies with mandates) and issue guidance, which perpetuates the permission-seeking culture.

Having experienced healthcare in other parts of Europe, there are many important alternative approaches which do not require new bureaucratic organisations. A looser more flexible approach to pursuing innovation may be the trick. Oh sorry, the NHS tried that with the Innovation Institute for something or other full of people running around the country with powerpoint presentations.

Just think of Sweden — healthcare run by the local council, and with co-payments!