Is integrated care hard to do? Are there perverse incentives in the system (things like free-riders and moral hazard, even NIMBY) that work agains effective change in healthcare, and in particular the neverending saga of the NHS? I suggest the problem lies in the methods chosen to solve the problem of integrated care, rather than the value of the goal itself.
- Over the years, the NHS has made great strides improving the quality of managers (I used to teach them and co-direct an MBA full of NHS managers) but many appear to be unwilling to speak ‘truth to power’ and take full responsibility for dealing with, in this case, integrated care. Instead, we continue to seek both permission-seeking behaviours in the executive suites of the providers and purchasers (just hate the commissioner language, so gutless), and reluctance to challenge the status quo, perferring the herd mentality.
- Foundation trust status has done wonders for improving institutional governance, but operational performance (as we know from Francis) is still uneven. I believe this is in part due to NHS organisations being incredibly weak in terms of their analytical capacity (working with data, modelling etc.) to understand and respond to day to day challenges, which undermines the ability to plan and structure strategic direction in response to changing health dynamics.
Integrated care is not hard to do but does require understanding the patient journey through the system and how best to organise the bits. So where does the NHS go wrong is solving this particular problem?
The models used, and the two articles evidence this are broken. What models does the NHS use? It uses approaches which I liken to ‘team hugs’ and ‘pass the teddy’, feel-good leadership approaches, which do not focus on the outcomes to be achieved, but processes, which may or may not lead to a solution. The result is an overuse of:
- “joined up care” rhetoric continues to confuse, yet we still don’t know what it means though it sounds like something we would want; I think it is what we thought we were paying for all along!
- “commitments” by those involved become contractual type language of agreement, and which are used to “clarify” what can and cannot be done. But again we see no focus on the problem, but on regulatory and other controls, which if they need clarifying, are perhaps useless if not actual barriers, so why do they exist in the first place? When do we bell this cat?
- “ambitous plans”, which is code for more paper which no one will read but which will clutter people’s diaries with meetings about meetings about meetings….
- “examples” of what can be done is supposed to demonstrate to people that what they want to do can be done; but if these folk are truly in charge of their organisations and have taken ownership of the problem, would already be probing the possibilities
- “pioneer status” is code for people who get to the early money first and get to take one of the examples and try it out by developing a plan which people can talk about, and around we go again.
- “top-down” is to be avoided, but is said as a reminder that ‘you are in charge’ just in case you were confused, but given the wider context, you actually aren’t in charge as if you were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
The reliance of policy-based tools, though, drives a logic that may not be as flexible as possible to achieve integrated care. If it is such a good idea, what is stopping people?
Integrated care can be driven on the purchasing side by, for instance:
- Incentivising providers through bundled payments for whole packages of care that cross institutional boundaries;
- Incentivising the emergence of new types of providers to achieve care integration;
- Tracking outcomes for processes of care.
Integrated care can be driven on the provider side by, for instance:
- Pursuing forms of vertical or horizontal integration that achieves a measure of care integration for specific populations of patients, by avoiding the problems of inter-institutional referrals;
- Creating new units of care activity that overcome internal organistional barriers, such as bolting on primary care onto the front-end of the hospital, using step-down units and other alternative provision for different strate of risk;
- Ensuring the urgent does not wag the dog and draw resources away from better service stuctures — why does is emergency service so overwhelmed yet the capacity of the system to anticipate and predict so weak?
- Bridging skill mix cartels and protected working practices embedded in professional regulation to enable flexible working.
- Did I mention working 7 days a week and running at least 18 hours a day? An example of the failure of integrated care is a hospital not discharging a patient on a Friday because  the lab doesn’t work late or  social services won’t start home care on a Friday afternoon. Integration means doing things when they need doing, not when it is convenient to do them.
It all comes down, in the end, to how you solve a problem. The NHS continues to use methods that have failed in the past, yet these tools continue to be trotted out over and over again.
There are better ways. Email if you want to know more.