Kissing it better: beliefs in modern medicine

ImageI’m trying out a new medium today, using the University of Birmingham’s Ideas Lab, on which they’ve just posted a podcast from me about health beliefs. You can find it at:

http://tinyurl.com/nd5wql8

I think the issues are as pertinent to health care professionals as they are to patients and the public, and it’d be really helpful to start a proper discussion about ways of harnessing and influencing people’s health beliefs, rather than always trying to discount them.  Even the term ‘placebo’ now has negative connotations, rather than being seen as a useful tool in the clinician’s bag.

What do you think? Should we be sticking to the narrow and reductive route of evidence based medicine to the exclusion of all else, or is there benefit in looking at a more holistic view of healthcare that uses all the levers it can find, even (perhaps especially) the ones that reside inside our own heads?

The issues obviously matter in the determination and implementation of ‘best care’, but it may also be relevant when we consider professional knowledge transfer; how and why do professionals change their practice, and how can we influence that? Can it be done scientifically, by assuming that this week’s articles in the Lancet will translate into next week’s clinics, or is there something deeper that influences how clinicians think, how their beliefs affect their behaviour? If the latter is true, we may need to augment those scientific journals with ‘softer’, more fuzzy approaches, the kind of tools used in social marketing.

I’d be very interested in your views…

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If you go down to the A&E, there shouldn’t be any surprise….

Teddy bearsOur increasing use of hospital services is out of control and unsustainable, and is contributing to the current crisis in accident and emergency (A&E). But the problem isn’t new and 30 years of NHS reforms have tried – and failed – to control it.

We now have figures that show a million more people went to A&E in England between February 2012 and January 2013 than had done the previous year – although changes in reporting may explain some of the increases we’ve seen in the past 25 years. There are also reports that trolley times are routinely reaching 12 hours in some parts of the country.

Now that GPs have been given control of some £80bn to plan and pay for NHS services (it’s what Clinical Commissioning Groups are for…),  many believe they should also be able to treat as many as 30% of people who come to A&E, more appropriately, and in a way that eases the burden.

The 1990s saw the creation of the ‘purchaser/provider split’, which separated those who planned and bought services from those who provided them – i.e mainly the health authorities and hospital trusts. With this came the half-hearted introduction of some elements of competition.

But only if we properly understand the underlying issues can we develop a coherent strategy to deal with them. And these issues can be encapsulated in three words: poorly aligned incentives.

A question of supply and demand

The dynamic between supply and demand drives many aspects of the human condition, and this applies to the NHS too. It has always been demand led, as it was created to respond to and meet our health needs.

There are elements of preventative care, but they’ve never been as prominent as ‘sexy’ acute services such as saving babies or heart transplants.

However, demand for any service is based on knowledge of that service, and in healthcare (as elsewhere), this kind of intelligence lies mainly with those who provide them, who use it to drum up business. Until we knew that 3D televisions existed, we didn’t realise how much we needed one. Similarly, in the NHS, until we know that treatments are available for heart disease/depression/impotence, we don’t ask for them.

As in every other industry, the supply of health services tends to drive demand. Hospital funding has moved away from opaque ‘block contracts’ – crudely, an annual allocated amount – to a system based on ‘payments by results’. As this is actually payment for activity, it tempts hospitals to increase supply to drive up demand.

In commercial industry, demand is largely regulated by price: “I’d love that 3D telly, but I can’t afford it right now”. But NHS services are largely free for us to use.

They are also free to GPs, who control most of our access to hospitals through patient referrals – except A&E of course, where we decide whether or not to visit.

Traditionally, GPs referred cases to their hospital consultant colleagues that were complex, or needed high-tech interventions. It’s always been assumed that referrals are driven purely by clinical criteria (what patients need) and specific skills (of a particular hospital specialist), not serendipity or whimsy. Patients’ needs and clinicians’ expertise are supposed to matter – not consumer choice or doctors’ golfing schedules.

However, if the balance between supply and demand has depended on these assumptions, they have been eroded over the years; it’s been assumed that patients seek help when they need it (though the tension between ‘need’ and ‘want’ increases as we’re encouraged to become consumers of a ‘free good’ like the NHS); we’ve also assumed that hospitals respond to demand (and are not incentivised to increase it) and that GPs are professionally driven only to refer patients when there is an absolute need.

But with GPs’  contracts now based largely on listed activities,  they are less prepared to absorb the grey areas where no explicit activities or payments are described – for example a home visit to a bereaved widow.

Apply these criteria to the A&E situation and the results are obvious:

  • Patients, now consumers used to instantaneous service in other aspects of their lives, are bound to prefer going to A&E than waiting for an appointment with their GP. Not only is A&E open 24/7 but tests that would take weeks to arrange through normal channels are instantly available. Sure, the care is neither continuous or holistic in A&E, but these concepts have been increasingly devalued because they are so hard to measure.
  • Hospitals receive payment for every attendance at A&E, and get addiitonal sums if patients are then admitted to the wards. They are also punished for keeping patients in A&E for more than four hours, so admitting patients becomes a no-brainer. It’s only now, when demand for hospital services is starting to outstrip supply – and the cash to feed it – that the cracks in the system are beginning to show.
  • If there are no disincentives for GPs to refer patients into hospital then why wouldn’t they do it, when they feel disenfranchised and de-professionalised by the reforms that have been churning round them for three decades?

This is all easy to analyse, but harder to repair. The basic precept underpinning the NHS has been that it’s free at the point of delivery, so the mismatch between consumerism and the welfare state is bound to expand, unless the notion of corporate responsibility in health can be re-introduced or until services cease to be free.

One mooted idea has been to increase public awareness of NHS costs, on the basis that this might make them think twice before (ab)using the ‘free’ service.

Activity-based hospital funding isn’t sustainable, and a return to some kind of risk sharing between service providers and those who commission services (the GPs) is a prerequisite to managing demand at an institutional level.

GPs’ incentives must be better aligned so that it becomes truly in their interest (professionally and morally, as well as financially) to restrict referrals to those that are really necessary.

The biggest issue is that of managing service availability; as long as we increase the supply of hospital services (particularly in A&E departments) this will feed demand. We have responded to the supply side constraints in clinics and investigation facilities by increasing that supply, so it is hardly surprising that this has in its turn encouraged higher demand.

The obvious corollary would be to deliberately restrict services, but that would be very hard to sell politically to an already disillusioned electorate. However, if GPs and the CCGs were allowed to do what they were first intended to do, their core purpose would be to extract the optimum health benefit from the public funds allocated to NHS Trusts.

Managing demand would be high on their list, and most of them would tell you that given the right tools, they would manage to do this in a much more coherent fashion, albeit at the cost of reduced health consumerism. The challenge is to loosen the stranglehold from central government sufficiently to allow this to happen before all the breath of enthusiasm for doing anything is completely cut off. And that really is a Political decision.

This is a modified version of an article published in ‘The Conversation’ under the title of ‘A&E is in crisis because we all take it for granted.’ That piece is available to view at http://tinyurl.com/mp8esp6

A snack that you can eat between blogs without ruining your appetite

I’ve been very busy this week, and haven’t had the time to do a full length entry.

However, I was involved in an interview with The Consultant magazine, part of a feature that they were running on commissioning.

The link to the magazine is: http://tinyurl.com/o25jxmo, and it may be worth a look.

Hopefully, I’ll be back on track in the next few days with a full blown article here.

Making CCGs work: three cardinal rules

jigsawClinical commissioning has arrived, but it will take a while before it becomes clear whether it is creating order or chaos. Now may be an appropriate time to revisit the underlying principles to see how it is likely to pan out.

Commissioning is not a simple notion, but an inclusive concept that covers a number of different functions. At the ‘micro’ level, there is the direct procurement of individual services, a process that has been called contracting: the customer pays the supplier for a service on which they agree.

Let’s say the customer is a home-owner, who wants a new kitchen; he has a rough idea of what he wants (the ‘output specification’, if you like) but as he doesn’t know much about building kitchens, he will need to capitalize on the supplier’s expertise and trust him to do the job well. Success will be measured in terms of overall quality and satisfaction, timeliness, and costs, and if these aren’t met, the buyer may have to use the contract to hold the supplier to account, and gain redress for any failure.

In NHS terms, such micro-commissioning is based on GPs’ referral decisions: GPs know roughly what they want, and they have a knowledge of the local expertise; their role is to organize specific procedures with the appropriate experts, and then check that they been carried out to the agreed specification.

They have the advantage over the home-owner that their knowledge of specialist provision, whilst not encyclopedic, is detailed enough to let them make realistic assessments of quality and perception, timeliness, and costs.

At this level, one would not expect the home-owner or the GP to make decisions based on strategic impact or links to a European Directive; it would be for the specialist expert in each case to keep their customers apprised of any legal issues, and it would be the experts who would be held responsible for any non-compliance.

At the ‘macro’ level, the parallel relationship may be that between the town planners and a major home-builder; as with the individual kitchen, there needs to be agreement based on a mutual understanding of the outcome of the job, and any necessary markers of its progress.

Thus, the planners may want the new estate to be carbon neutral, to fit into the existing architectural ‘mood’, and to be completed within a certain time, to a specified quality, at an agreed cost; if they are sensible, they will leave it to the technical experts to decide the precise manner in which they respond to these specifications. Not only does that involve the builders in the decision-making and so keep them engaged and enthusiastic, it also maximizes the benefits of their expertise and promotes a degree of risk-sharing that divides up the responsibility (legal, financial, perceptual) for the project, and ensures that both parties need to attain the same positive outcome to be satisfied.

Back in the NHS, this relationship mirrors that between strategic commissioners (the CCGs, Area Teams, and the regional offices of NHS England: do we really need all three???) and the acute sector pretty well. Like the town planners, the strategic commissioners will need to incorporate national policies and regulations into their strategies. They will need enough knowledge to ensure that their providers are not pulling the wool over their eyes, without getting bogged down in the level of operational detail that boomerangs the risks back to them whilst raising the transaction costs of the whole process.

At this level, the quantum being procured is much larger, and so it is harder to ‘contest;’ a local authority, having agreed for a contractor to build them a whole new housing estate, would find it much more complex to withdraw from their contract than if they were contracting for a single kitchen. However, a competent authority should have levers to pull, should the builders not fulfill their side of the agreement.

And it is here that we come to the nub of whether or not commissioning in the NHS will succeed.

While developing and monitoring contracts (like any other performance management system) should be based on the carrots of success, it should be backed up by sanctions that are appropriate and viable.

Such levers should ultimately be based on the ability and feasibility of withdrawing the contract, something that itself depends on the availability of alternative provision and the consequences of such action (be they financial, legal, and perceptual, with the added complexity of how they affect the health of the population involved).

When the notion of commissioning first appeared the NHS in 1990 in the guise of the ‘purchaser/provider split’, its main purpose was to steer the acute sector away from fuelling ‘supply-led demand’ in health services and towards a new responsiveness to the needs of the population.

In fact, several iterations of change have not really had major impact on the acute sector, which still seems to be relatively unaffected by the current organizational changes, although it is facing some highly challenging financial pressures.

As long as it remains impractical to offer real challenge to the acute sector, commissioning will be largely irrelevant, offering no more than minor political irritation to the vast and politically-aware acute sector.

The three key challenges for the new commissioners may be summarised as follows:

– At the micro-level, the development of more widespread alternatives for GP referrals needs to be encouraged; merely shifting referrals between different hospitals won’t be enough, as the ensuing Brownian motion is unlikely to promote any real change, just random movement.

What is required is the threat of removing activity from the sector entirely, which will depend either on practices being allowed to develop viable alternatives themselves, or other providers (private or otherwise) being given access to such provision.

– At the macro-level, the systems being developed (whether through contracts or other less tangible ‘currencies’) must not be allowed to become ‘too big to fail’. Keeping the quantum of exchange small enough to allow real contestability is going to be key if commissioning is to become an effective management philosophy.

Thus for example, it is much easier to challenge the provision of a single service (Physiotherapy? Pathology? Plastic surgery?) where real service delivery changes may be seen, than in trying to shut down an entire hospital, or even parachuting a new management team into a failing Trust, where direct patient care is unlikely to be affected (at least in the short term).

– And at the ‘meso’ level that spans micro and macro, it will be vital that the consequences of any actions be seen quickly and directly. If the GPs in a CCG want to repatriate a service out of the acute sector and into the community and it takes three years and a warehouse-full of bureaucracy to do it, then the GPs will simply give up trying. The links between input and effect need to be obvious and the accountability for both needs to be transparent and appropriate.

If commissioning becomes an ineffectual brake on demand, then we may as well abandon the whole concept now; however, if we manage these cultural changes, then the introduction of the new commissioning arrangements have the potential to be the ‘pivot point’ for changing the entire dynamic of the NHS.

A version of this article was published in Pulse magazine in the UK on 8 May 2013