Clinical commissioning groups: how to ensure their first birthday isn’t their last

Cake

It is more than a year since clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) formally came into existence in England, and although strategic plans are slowly beginning to emerge, CCGs continue to struggle with an infrastructure originally designed to control a national system.

The 2012 Health and Social Care Act saw CCGs as the mainspring of commissioning, capitalising on general practitioners’ twin roles: dealing with patients at the ‘front door’ of the NHS and referring and coordinating their journeys through its complex institutional pathways when necessary. The notion was that general practitioners’ (albeit anecdotal) knowledge of local services could be synthesised to inform operational and strategic commissioning throughout the NHS. Giving CCGs the freedom to change services in their local health economies was intended to encourage innovative models of care that were more user friendly and (hopefully) better value for money.

However, CCG leaders found themselves the late arrivals at a party already in full swing. NHS England had established the ground rules, subsumed specialist commissioning and primary care, and determined how CCGs should work and be managed. And adding to the harsh financial pressures, CCGs found their budgets being raided for contingency and efficiency funding as well as for augmenting specialist commissioning, maintaining pre-existing private finance projects, and supporting social care initiatives.

In terms of how to engage and enthuse newcomers, this is not what textbooks recommend, but for the current policy to work CCGs must pull their weight. How can this be achieved? CCG development seems to parallel adolescence. By the time children leave home to live independently, they need to be able to deal with the physical, financial, and emotional hurdles that they will inevitably face: they must shoulder responsibility and risk.

Similarly, CCGs were intended to assume increasing responsibility for services and develop a mature relationship with NHS England through the area teams and commissioning support units. Many have commented that this is not happening and that a form of indirect cajoling has developed instead. Despite a few signs of change (such as NHS England accepting an annual survey of its performance by NHS Clinical Commissioners), the general sense is that CCGs are under-resourced in human and financial terms and that the need to cope with what is operationally urgent is preventing them from dealing with what is strategically important. If CCGs are not allowed to develop sufficient self determination, their growing frustration and enduring dependency will drive their participant general practitioners to lose interest at best and throw adolescent tantrums at worst.

CCGs were intended to be clinically driven by autonomous professionals who function better as volunteers than as conscripts. However, such professionals (especially independent general practitioners) traditionally lack experience of corporate working, and so encouraging them to consider collective needs as well as those of their individual patients and practices is key to the success of their CCG.

This is a complex challenge that needs tackling at various levels. Overt CCG leadership requires organisational expertise as well as a thorough knowledge of local context. Many of the clinical chairpeople and accountable officers still need to learn more about strategic thinking, which takes commitment as well as protected time and funding. Whether it is even possible remains to be seen; CCGs vary greatly in their arrangements and ambitions and even the roles of clinicians and managers differ considerably.

Leadership needs to be mirrored by support among members; clinical commissioning cannot succeed without ‘grass roots’ input informing strategic thinking. Support will vary, and senior (strategic) CCG staff will have different perspectives from frontline (operational) clinicians. Such differences have never previously been bridged, and consequently individual clinical decisions have rarely influenced high level strategy. If CCGs are to exploit their potential fully, this aspect of their functioning needs a lot more development, which also takes time and money. So far, neither has been prominent, with most attention being paid to traditional senior NHS leadership, and almost none apparent to its corollary, what we might call ‘followership.’

Another obstacle to the successful development of CCGs is that the commissioning of primary care is separate to that of secondary and community services. CCGs control most of the latter two but none of the former. If a CCG decides to replace a traditional hospital service with a primary care alternative, it can decommission the first but cannot directly commission the second.

If CCGs are to hold responsibility for providing healthcare for their populations (the idea implicitly underpinning their creation), then this mismatch must be removed to give them the tools and accountability needed to provide services. If we believe in localism at all, then how they use these tools should be their decision; if they choose to provide services within their own organisation rather than subcontracting with local NHS Trusts, then that needn’t constitute a conflict of interests as long as the accountability is in place.

Outcomes such as agreed levels of morbidity, patient satisfaction, timeliness, and financial probity all offer measures of accountability irrespective of the agency involved. As it stands, CCGs are unlikely to change their paradigms of care because current mechanisms discourage change rather than rewarding it. Moreover, any existing momentum is likely to dissipate as those involved become increasingly disillusioned.

With the NHS caught between rising demand and lessening funding, the system will increasingly have to do more for less. Giving working clinicians some responsibility for achieving this, by connecting their daily activity to strategic leadership, seems logical. But CCGs will have to be supported much more emphatically, politically and operationally, if we want health service policy, local services, and the needs of the whole local population to be brought together coherently.

This is a slightly revised version of a paper prepared in collaboration with Michael Dixon, and first published in the BMJ (online 2 April 2014 as BMJ 2014;348:g2306).

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A&E departments and the M25 effect

I’ve just done a shorImaget slot on the local radio, talking about the ‘crisis in A&E’. It was based on the new report by the Health Select Committee that highlights the issues, but says very little that is new about their solution. We know that A&E is the ‘safety valve’ for the system, we know that the patients are confused about its role, and we know that fewer and fewer doctors choose to work there.

However, the solutions mentioned by the Committee are almost entirely structural and unimaginative: beefing up the Urgent Care Boards from small talking shops into larger talking shops really isn’t the answer; neither is a vague exhortation that Ambulance Trusts should become ‘care providers in their own right’.

Perhaps it would be helpful to reframe the issues, and consider them in a slightly different way. If we look at A&E from the perspectives of hospitals providers, of those working in the community, and of patients themselves, we might get a more rounded view of the problems and maybe their solutions.

Hospitals are under tremendous pressure; they have to see patients referred to them within eighteen weeks, admit acutely ill patients from Casualty in under four hours, and do it all within ever tighter financial and quality constraints. To deal with the front door issues posed by A&E, they have introduced more and more services there, so that for many patients, turning up at the emergency department offers a ‘one stop shop’ solution to their problems. The paradox is that the more that is provided at A&E, the more the service will be used.

Clearly, the corollary of reducing services at the front door is probably not a viable option in political or practical terms, but at least we should be aware of the dynamics of supply and demand in this setting, and think twice before we get seduced by more manifestations of the M25 effect.

From a community services perspective, it’s worth asking what the incentives and disincentives are to sending people to A&E: in the middle of the night, at an ill patient’s bedside, when relatives are panicking, no other care facilities are available, and the hospital light is on (to use Stephen Dorrell’s image), why shouldn’t the ‘on call’ clinician send the patient into hospital?

The presence in NHS111 of a telehealth service that seems to do no more than signpost the road to A&E doesn’t really help either; one of the reasons we have trained professionals is to cope with risk and uncertainty in a way that an algorithmic system simply cannot do, and offering a cut price alternative was predicted by everyone but the party politicians not to work.

From the poor benighted patients’ point of view, they are faced with the emotive issues of ill health, with little or no information, often on their own, fed by a media diet of Holby City on the telly, and instant gratification in all other aspects of their lives; they also know that if they call their GP they will have a battle to be seen promptly, and if they ring NHS 111, they will probably be told to go to A&E; so once again, what’s the disincentive for them?

Complex issues cannot usually be solved with simplistic sticking plasters, so whatever single concrete suggestions are made will not be enough; indeed, given our track record, playing around with the system (any system) in a ‘quick fix’ sort of way often compounds the problems, and puts different parts of the system under strain.

However, applying a deliberately opaque and undefined solution, whilst harder to quantify and assess, does allow the system (and particularly individual professionals within the system) to use such a solution constructively and effectively, and to feel more involved in that solution; ownership is a recurring theme in all the current manipulations of the public sector.

Thus, giving Acute Trusts a new process measure to meet, such as a new Trolley time target would merely stimulate a new ‘gaming’ solution (what is the real purpose of medical assessment units, for example, if not to take the strain off the A&E four hour target?).  However, contracting with the CCGs for an outcome measure of reduced admissions (and giving them control of the resources currently involved) would allow them to be inventive and innovative in their approach, involving their own professionals, and letting them see the direct benefit to patients, to hospitals, and yes, to their bank balances too.

The GPs who are involved in running CCGs aren’t bad at understanding health and illness, and the ways in which patients are involved (or not) in their care; they are also infinitely practical and pragmatic, so if given the tools to create a solution to a problem with which they empathized, then we might begin to see some progress.

Without their ‘buy in’, no single prescription can ever work, even for Bruce Keogh and Stephen Dorrell.

 

This piece is based on one first published in Pulse Managazine on 24 July 2013, entitled ‘Another sticking plaster for the A&E compound fracture’

CCG: friend or foe?

Friend or foe1Put yourself for a moment into the shoes of a GP; not an ambitious, management focused, media hungry go-getter, but a doctor who wants the best for his/her patients. Your list size is average, which means that around 1600 patients are registered with you, and depend on you to co-ordinate their care, and be their first point of contact, their main provider of care.

Do you happen to know how much the NHS spends on an average GP list each year? Using the back of an envelope (so the figures are approximate), I worked out that  in 2012, the UK NHS budget was close to £110 billion, which was available to look after about 60 million people; that works out at about £1800 for each person, which meant that for an average list, about £2.9 million was available. Scary isn’t it?

Now obviously, quite a lot of this was spent on fixed overheads like Public Health England, and redundancy packages for displaced managers, but let’s ignore these for the moment, because it’s always been the Government and ‘The Centre’ that have determined these. The important point is that since April this year, control of over two thirds of this budget has been handed over to CCGs, to spend on commissioning services for their patients.

The logic underpinning this move has been explicit since the 1990s: GPs co-ordinate their patients’ care, and their referral of these patients determines much of the activity in the community, mental health and acute sectors; so who better than these individuals to ‘own’ the resources associated with all this activity, and use their knowledge, common sense and autonomous professionalism to begin to move activity in ways that improve both the effectiveness and the efficiency of that care?

All the reforms of the past two decades or more have been moving towards this end. GP fundholding, GP commissioning, PCGs, PCTs, and now CCGs, all have been designed to wrest control of activity as much from politicians as from the large provider organisations, to stop them peddling their vested interests to the public (often through the tabloid media).

The logic of all the policies developed over this time (Working for Patients; ‘a primary care led NHS’, ‘the New NHS-modern, dependable’; Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS; to list but a few of the buzz phrases) have all been pushing in the same direction, albeit with different structures in place to make the policies happen.

So how does this link to the title of this piece? Are CCGs a Good Thing for GPs, or a Terrible Disaster? I started by pointing out that in theory, GPs each have the power to control the manner in which £2 million pounds or more should be spent on the care of their patients, so I’ll follow that up with two challenges.  The first is: who do you think better understands patient flows and needs: patients’ GPs, or middle managers based in whatever incarnation of health authority happens to be in vogue? Only GPs know what their patients’ medical needs really are and with the freedom to be innovative, they could probably think of all sorts of ways of doing things better, more quickly, in more user-friendly ways: it’s £2 million pounds, for goodness sake…

But my contrary second challenge is about strategy: £2 million may seem like  a lot to you and me, but it’s only a couple of trees in the enormous woods of the NHS; how do we a) maximise its impact and b) minimise the risks to individual GPs, their practices, and their patients? The strength of general practice lies in individual patient care.  If GPs are to be involved in planning and procuring services for entire lists, then they will need ways of working that offer economy of scale and provide insurance against unexpected events (imagine what a cluster of motorway crashes over a holiday weekend would do to the Trauma & Orthopaedics budget) without destroying the ‘can do’ spirit that has been so integral to their success over the past 65 years.

Where CCGs are genuinely ‘owned’ by their GPs, then the new organisations have great potential.  As in any successful corporate entity, individuals will need to accept that the needs of the group will sometimes trump their own local issues, and they will have to toe the corporate line a lot more often than they may have done in the past. However, they should then expect their CCG ‘corporation’ to offer support and act on practical suggestions often enough to show the practices overall benefit and maintain their loyalty. They could then be seen as ‘friends with teeth’, where the relationship needs constant effort and development, but where the gain (whether in terms of patient care, professional satisfaction, or even primary care development) justifies the pain.

However, if CCGs are either run in a top down fashion, or driven by political rather than care based priorities, then it will not take long for the cynicism to emerge; like the PCTs before them, such CCGs will quickly be seen as foe, whose actions are to be resisted and subverted.

In summary then, CCGs have the potential to be THE agent for change in the new world of NHS England, but only if their growth and development are carefully nurtured. The large scale leadership developments that seem to be emerging from the new Leadership Academy have never worked before, so it is hard to see how they will be more likely to succeed this time. What is needed is enough interest to be engendered amongst ‘working’ GPs to persuade them to invest some of their precious time and emotional energy in getting their show on the road, and make it a show of which they, and the entire NHS, can be proud.

And that won’t happen without effort or resources; but with the potential for every GP with an average list to really influence how £2 million is spent on his or her patients, isn’t that investment worth it?

This piece is based on an article first published in Pulse magazine on 24 June 2013

On conducting orchestras and resisting magic bullets

t_WilkinsConductingThe underlying currents that have been sweeping through the NHS for the last thirty years have been remarkably simple and consistent.

Activity and costs in the acute sector had been growing too quickly for the economy to support and without enough impact on the health of the population, so two main actions were introduced.

The first was the separation of the commissioning of care (procurement, purchasing, call it what you will) from its provision, which was intended to introduce appropriate tension and ‘contestability’ and so remove any cozy collusion in the system.

The second was the strengthening of primary care (and specifically the GPs) at the front end of the system, as generalists able to treat the vast majority of illnesses themselves, ‘case manage’ the rest through their ability to control referrals to the acute sector, and co-ordinate all care, acting as the conductors of the NHS orchestra.

Mechanisms supporting these principles have developed over time, but the direction of travel seemed well established. The population quantum changed, financial levers held by primary care evolved, and the acute sector has been through its own iterations with the private and voluntary sectors beginning to become involved as providers.

The potential ‘magic bullet’ in the changes was the intention to move patients and their services out of expensive institutions. Community-based care was assumed to be more user friendly, more appropriate, more easily accessible, and cheaper, so the philosophy seemed like a ‘no brainer’.

Moreover, the drivers were strong enough to keep the GP community (more or less) on board despite repeated disappointments as the aspirational rhetoric of each round of reforms was diluted by real world politics.

What has emerged as the Kevlar vest against the magic bullet however, has been the difficulty of getting resources to follow the patients. The machinations here have been a perpetual problem that may now derail things once again.

With the reforms of the early 1990s, traditional hospital-based activity did begin to migrate to the community. Patients with diabetes, hypertension, angina, and a host of other medical conditions were treated in their GPs’ surgeries. Even some technical procedures began to move, as GP practices (or surgeons employed by them) started carrying out endoscopies, vasectomies, even more complex procedures such as hernia repairs.

However, what became quickly apparent was that the cash that could be taken out of the acute sector as it lost this activity was minimal. Individual diabetic patients only incur a few prescriptions, a modicum of staff time, and their ‘hotel’ costs. Unless one could close entire wards, real costs could apparently not be taken out, only costs at the margins. Without that incentive, the moves to make radical service changes fizzled out, leaving the established status quo more or less intact.

With the establishment of clinical commissioning (originally GP-led commissioning), the phoenix of real service change looked as if it could emerge from the ashes of previously stalled political initiative. Once again, it was proposed that GPs (or the wider primary care clinical groupings) would ‘control the majority of spending in the NHS’ and thus be able to make step changes to the dynamic of service delivery by moving resources out of the acute sector into community-based facilities.

But lo and behold, another issue has emerged to stymie these moves, based on a political ideology aimed at increasing competition, and the fear that GPs will use the new arrangements to line their own pockets. Formal competitive tendering has been introduced, whose practicalities have yet to be tested. Thus for example (according to guidance issued from the NHS Commissioning Board (NHSCB) last summer) CCGs ‘will need to decide whether services could be delivered by a number of potential providers (which may include general practice) or whether they could only be provided by general practice’. However, it is unclear how they will be held to account for their decisions, and by whom.

Although the NHSCB (through its area teams/regional offices) is not intended in principle to interfere, experience over the last two years has shown that at every stage the need to get the process right has trumped concerns about outcome. To misquote an old aphorism, we are focusing on doing things right rather than doing the right things, and this seems unlikely to change while the CB itself is learning how to function.

But there is a larger concern. The last thirty years have shown that we need to consider the structure and function of the NHS as two distinct issues. The system is evolving so that function is better and more seamlessly integrated, whilst the organizational structures that support these functions are often better kept separate. What must flow freely however, are the lubricants of success, which are money and information.

There is more discussion to be had here, but the immediate point is that as long as the funding streams of hospital and community care are handled separately, and the incentives for the preferred outcomes are not carefully and precisely aligned, no system will ever function properly. The dog’s dinner that has been the politicized process of the last three years has resulted in a confused, opaque structure that will never produce the culture that we need if we want efficient, user-friendly services as our outcome.

(This piece was first published in Pulse magazine on 9 April 2013)

The birth of CCGs: so much to do, so little time

ImageThis blog was first published in Practical Commissioning on 19 March 2013.

Although Donald Rumsfeld was a US Secretary of Defence, he will probably be remembered for a statement he made in 2002 about the Iraq war, though we’ll ignore that symbolism. Anyway, this is what he said:

‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’

As CCGs prepare for their formal birth, Rumsfeld’s aphorism is a useful guide to thinking about their developmental needs, as long as one adds the one missing category, the ‘unknown knowns’  – the things we don’t know that we know.

CCGs are designed to combine two important elements of healthcare into a single, seamless function. Although their stakeholders are intended to be clinicians generally, their focus is on GPs, whose key purpose is to integrate healthcare delivery with referral decisions to ensure that the services in the specialist (hospital) sector effectively and efficiently fill any gaps in primary care provision.

For jobbing GPs, there will probably be little difference in their routines; they will still see patients, and refer those who cannot be adequately treated in the consulting room. In their referral decisions, they may be expected to conform to CCG rules as to where and when patients should be sent, but other than that, the transition to CCGs may – and it’s not such a bad thing – have little impact for the ‘grassroots’ GP.

It is at the organisational level that Rumsfeld’s aphorism may have more relevance, for CCGs will need to consider the strategic and operational aspects of commissioning, and indeed make sense of the term itself. Thus for example, at an operational level they will quickly need to understand the business models of their local trusts, link service availability with local population needs, identify and fill any gaps, and develop referral policies for which their member GPs will need to become accountable.

At a more strategic level, they will need to understand how the needs of their population may be compared and combined with those of neighbouring CCGs, grapple with medical and societal trends and juggle these issues with the political pressures that will constantly intrude.

They will also need to wrestle with the issues of probity that bedevil the whole of the British welfare state, but are probably worst in the NHS, where life and death issues overlay rational decision making, whether financial, legal, or clinical.

These are just a few examples of the tasks facing CCGs; the questions they raise concern the skills needed to succeed in them, how well equipped are they in these skills, and what help will they need to develop the ones they lack?

Which brings us back to Donald and his various permutations of known and unknown. There are skills in the CCGs that are so well established that their clinicians don’t even have to think about them: good general practices are so effective at understanding the interweaving complexity of patients’ physical and psychological problems and handling the uncertainties and probabilities underpinning good care care that they do these almost unconsciously. These are the skills that Rumsfeld missed out: the unknown knowns. We are so good at what we do that we forget how hard it is to do. Like experienced cyclists who give no thought to balancing their precarious machines whilst ducking and weaving through the traffic, good primary care clinicians are unconsciously competent at what they do. We should celebrate the dedication and training needed to achieve such effortless effectiveness.

However, there are many tasks for which CCG leaders will need new skills. They (generally..) realize that they need more financial and political skills to cope with their Local Area Team, the NHS Commissioning Board and the rules and regulations that could explode around them like land mines. These are ‘known unknowns’ where they are consciously incompetent, and where training is already under way. I have slight misgivings about the nature of such training, as the need to produce programmes ‘at scale’ for so many CCG leaders and senior staff feels at odds with the highly individual developmental needs of each person; it’s important to understand accounting systems, and the latest version of the NHS Operating Framework, but it needs a defter, more crafted approach to discuss how to cope with personal and organizational politics, or how to manage the care of too many people with too little money.

Finally, there are the ‘unknown unknowns,’ those problems that only become apparent when they become apparent. For instance, it’s likely that much work will be required to manage autonomous clinicians without losing their enthusiasm and dedication, or in re-invigorating the caring culture that has been so deficient in recent years, especially when the NHS (like every other vast bureaucracy) will continue to be reductive and punitive.

But even an external dispassionate view cannot predict unknown unknowns (or they’d be known unknowns…). The challenge is to have mechanisms in place in anticipation of the new, difficult issues, less to help in solving them than to support CCG leaders as they cope with their implications: for it is when blissful unconscious incompetence (‘commissioning is just an extension of what GPs do’) turns into conscious incompetence (‘OMG, what do we do now?’) that the risks are highest of the wheels coming off the wagon. And in this case, the wagon may be CCG leadership itself as much as the mechanics of CCG function.

Having high level, developmental support in place working with CCGs leaders will be crucial in allowing them to grow and mature in ability, confidence, and effectiveness.