Unbundling: the future of health and social care to 2035

The King’s Fund, a UK health charity ran a scenario essay writing competition, which I entered. I didn’t win, but here is the link and of course congratulations to the winner: (winner, runner up and other scenarios, but not mine).

Below is a  version of my submitted scenario, revised and generalised to any care system. The scenario builds on the notion of service unbundling and draws on strong and weak signals of changes likely to impact health and social care perhaps to about 2035. The scenario is written as a retrospective view from the year 2047.

Unbundling 2035

Between 2016 and 2035, the way that people worked had substantially changed by widespread digitisation of information. Smart machines and robots had moved from doing physical work to being central to much cognitive work and which led to fundamental restructuring of the economy. By 2035, taxation was changing from taxing people to taxing the work done by devices, cognologies, and robots.

The fault lines between reality and expectations were starkly evident during the 2020s, as public investment in health and social care struggled to cope with the rapidly changing world. People were becoming accustomed to flexible access to personalised services that came to them and expected the same from care provision. Rising displeasure at service decline led to middle-class flight to alternatives with rising use of private medical insurance, progressively fracturing the social contract that legitimated publicly-funded care. Indeed, by 2028, 38% of the population used private care, with over 55% amongst Millennials.

Fearful health and social executives and worried Ministers of Health had reacted to these stresses by pulling the system even more tightly together, to protect jobs and avoid the failure of publicly-funded institutions.

This fed further public displeasure by the dominant middle-aged Millennials who challenged the traditional approaches to health and social care. In the United Kingdom, for instance, this unrest led to the 2028 Referendum on their tax-funded healthcare system, leading to the replacement of this system with social insurers and personal Social and Health Care Savings Accounts.

The process of changes in health and social care around the world has become known as Unbundling. This brief historical retrospective outlines three of the key components of that unbundling.

The 1st Unbundling: of knowledge and clinical work

Professional knowledge was affected by digital technologies which had unbundled knowledge from the expert. This changed how expert knowledge was organised, used and accessed; research institutions and knowledge-based organisations were the first to feel the changes, with librarians being one of the first professions to face obsolescence. Rising under-employment, particularly in traditional male-dominated occupations was still being absorbed by the economy.

Routine cognitive work and access to information and services was increasingly provided by cognologies (intelligent technologies) or personal agents as they were called. Widely used across society, they were embedded in clinical workflow from diagnosis to autonomous minimally invasive surgery. By this time, jobs with “assistant” in the title had generally disappeared from the care system, despite having been seen as an innovative response to workforce shortages through the late 20-teens. These jobs had turned out to be uninteresting, and being highly fragmented, required time-consuming supervision.

The benefits of precision medicine were substantial by this time, enabling earlier diagnosis and simpler and less invasive treatments. Theranostics, the merging of diagnosis and therapy, unbundled the linear care pathway and the associated clinical and support work. This also led to the unbundling of specialist clinical services, laboratory testing and imaging from monopoly supply by hospitals. Indeed, the last hospital was planned in 2025, but by the time it opened in 2033, was deemed obsolete.

The 2nd Unbundling: of financing and payment

The unbearable and unsustainable rise in health and social care costs necessitated better ways to align individual behaviours and preferences with long term health and well-being. Behavioural science had shown that people did not always act in their own best interests; this meant the care system needed people to have ‘skin in the game’, best done by monetising highly salient personal risks.

Existing social insurance systems which used co-payments were more progressive in this direction, while countries with tax-funded systems were forced to reassess the use of co-payments, and financial incentives. The Millennials, having replaced the baby-boomers as the primary demographic group, were prepared to trade-off equity for more direct access to care. It also became politically difficult to advance equity as a goal against the evidence of poorer health outcomes as comparisons with peer countries drove performance improvements.

The use of medical/social savings accounts was one way that gave individuals control of their own money and building on consumerist behaviour, this directly led to improved service quality and incentivised provider performance as they could no longer hide behind the protecting veil of public funding. The social insurers were able to leverage significant reforms through novel payment systems, and influence individual health behaviours through value-based (or evidence-based) insurance not possible under a taxation system.

The 3rd Unbundling: of organisations

With people used to having their preferences met through personalised arrangements, care was organised around flexible patterns of provision able to respond easily to new models of care. This replaced the “tightly coupled” organisational approach known in the early part of the 21st century as “integration”, which we know led to constrained patient pathways, and limited patient choices unable to evolve with social, clinical and technological changes.

The big-data tipping point is reckoned to have occurred around 2025. Because the various technologies and cognologies had become ambient in care environments they were invisible to patients, informal carers, and care professionals alike; this enabled the genesis of smaller and more diverse working environments.

By 2032, medical consultants were no-longer hospital-based, having become clinical care social organisations, with their cheaper, smaller, portable, networked and intelligent clinical resources. Other care professionals had followed suit. These clinical groupings accessed additional clinical expertise on as-needed basis (known as the “Hollywood” work model); this way of organising clinical expertise helped downsize and reshape the provision of care and met patient expectations for a plurality of care experiences.

It takes time to shift from the reliance on monopoly supply of care from hospitals in those countries that continued to pursue a state monopoly role in care provision. However, most repurposed themselves quite quickly as focused factories, while the more research-oriented specialised in accelerating the translation of research into daily use, helped along by the new research discovery tools and the deepening impact of systems biology which was making clinical trials obsolete.

Conclusion

This Unbundling arose as a product of the evolution of social attitudes, informed by the emerging technological possibilities of the day. The period from 2016 to 2025 was a critical time for all countries, exacerbated by shortages in the workforce coupled with economic difficulties and political instability.

Today, in 2047, we are well removed from those stresses that caused such great anxiety. We must marvel, though, at the courage of those who were prepared to build what today is a leaner, simpler and more plural system, removed from politicised finance and management decisions.

It is hard to imagine our familiar home-based theranostic pods emerging had this trajectory of events not happened. As our Gen-Zeds enter middle age, they will, in their turn, reshape today’s system.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

27 December 2047

Note on the Scenario

This scenario is informed by strong and weak signals, including:

Ayers A, Miller K, Park J, Schwartz L, Antcliff R. The Hollywood model: leveraging the capabilities of freelance talent to advance innovation and reduce risk. Research-Technology Management. 2016 Sep 2;59(5):27–37.

Babraham Institute. The zero person biotech company. Drug Baron. http://drugbaron.com/the-zero-person-biotech-company/

Cook D, Thompson JE, Habermann EB, Visscher SL, Dearani JA, Roger VL, et al. From ‘Solution Shop’ Model to ‘Focused Factory’ in hospital surgery: increasing care value and predictability. Health Affairs. 2014 May 1;33(5):746–55.

Cullis P. The personalized medicine revolution: how diagnosing and treating disease are about to change forever. Greystone Books, 2015.

Does machine learning spell the end of the data scientist? Innovation Enterprise. https://channels.theinnovationenterprise.com/articles/does-machine-learning-spell-the-end-of-the-data-scientist

Eberstadt, N. Men without work. Templeton, 2016.

Europe’s robots to become ‘electronic persons’ under draft plan. Reuters. www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-robotics-lawmaking-idUSKCN0Z72AY

First 3D-printed drug just unveiled: welcome to the future of medicine. https://futurism.com/first-3d-printed-drug-just-unveiled-welcome-future-medicine/

Ford M. The rise of the robots: technology and the threat of mass unemployment. Basic Books, 2015.

Frey BC, Osborne MA. The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Oxford Martin School, Oxford University, 2013.

Generation uphill. The Economist. www.economist.com/news/special-report/21688591-millennials-are-brainiest-best-educated-generation-ever-yet-their-elders-often [accessed December 2016]

Lakdawalla DN, Bhattacharya J, Goldman DP. Are the young becoming more disabled? Health Affairs, 23(1-2004):168-176.

Susskind R, Susskind D. The future of the professions: how technology will transform the work of human experts. Oxford UP, 2015.

Topol E. The creative destruction of medicine: how the digital revolution will create better health care. Basic Books, 2012.

With Samsung’s ‘Bio-Processor,’ wearable health tech is about to get weird. Motherboard. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/with-samsungs-bio-processor-wearable-health-tech-is-about-to-get-weird

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