Health Reform

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.


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.

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.

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

Europe’s robots to become ‘electronic persons’ under draft plan. Reuters.

First 3D-printed drug just unveiled: welcome to the future of 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. [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.

With the release of the latest analysis from the King’s Fund (here), heightened attention is being paid to NHS performance. It may only be a coincidence that an election is looming in which the NHS may be an election puppet. The King’s Fund report includes in the title that it an assessment of the NHS under the coalition government. While to some extent this is true, the NHS performance is not really about the actions of the government, but how policy direction is implemented by NHS providers and the system for commissioning care and the role of Monitor. Gosh, so many moving parts. By the way, I have no real criticism of the methodology used in the report; it is always about what conclusions we draw that matters.

The Report takes performance since 2010 for a baseline. Any numerate person knows that choosing your starting point is important in supporting conclusions about performance. We have had a recent report on blood transfusion in the NHS in the 1970s and 1980s, which had folks then known how poorly the NHS performed would likely have led to mass emigration; at that time, many of the people now in advisory or senior roles were learning their jobs and establishing their preferences and politicians were unable to imagine alternatives.

All governments of any political persuasion have acted to protect the NHS from direct litigation; the effect of this is to indemnify managerial inaction and poor treatment of patients. For example, in the early 1990s it became known that the deaths from hospital acquired infections exceeded road traffic accidents. This produced better infection control methods but didn’t improve patient safety. Had the NHS providers been subject then to pretty standard accreditation methods used in Australia, Canada and the US, it would have likely shuttered half of the NHS hospitals as dangerous to the public.

So, one conclusion might be that the NHS isn’t doing that poorly when put against its historical legacy of significant underperformance, and inefficiencies. Despite the domestic mythology that the NHS is/was the envy of the world, it is/was the universality of it that folks admired, not its waiting lists and high clinical death rates. During the debates on the implementation of what is known loosely as Obamacare, referring to the NHS or the UK health system was avoided as a political red flag; the country that was viewed favourably was the Netherlands.

The Report usefully looks at resources available. What needs to be appreciated in understanding resource use, is whether the resources are where they need to be. NHS hospitals are monopoly suppliers of specialists, labs and imaging services and a lot of services that are run from hospitals really don’t even need to be there (think ophthalmology, diabetic care, much physiotherapy); NHS hospitals reluctantly give up clinical control of patients receiving homecare and so on.

GPs and their patients must be fitted into the hospital’s service capacity in order to receive much care. Anyone who has had to wait for a scan will wonder why. As resource utilisation dictates whether outcomes are achieved and directly impact quality of care, the bottlenecks created by monopolistic practices in the NHS will only lead to greater risk of declining performance. People who hit the 4 hour A&E target who need some imaging, will of necessity get admitted, otherwise they are on the out-patient list (which can extend into months). All this is avoidable.

So not having the right resources available at the right time isn’t a crisis of funding, it is a crisis of management and system design.

The proof is always in the pudding. The Macmillan folks released a report on cancer survival (here), with their conclusion that cancer survival in the UK is stuck in the 1990s. Despite years of extra money, what is going wrong? A paper in the International Journal of Cancer (Moller H, et al Breast cancer survival in England, Norway and Sweden: a population-based comparison, 127, 2630–2638 (2010)) concluded:

“[if cancer patients in England are presenting at more advanced stages of cancer], then the main public health implication is that any strategy for improvement should include as a primary focus symptom awareness among middle-aged and older women and their primary care professionals, with an aim to facilitate early diagnosis and treatment.”

The implication for the NHS and belatedly recognised by NHS England, is that poor cancer outcomes come from the inability of patients to access oncologists directly in a timely manner. This arises from the hospital’s monopoly control of specialists and the inability of oncologists to establish direct access to full-service oncology services for patients when compared to access in the countries highlighted in the Macmillan report. The same can be said of many other clinical areas which hospitals monopolise. The disruptive forces at work in other sectors of our society are muted when it comes to healthcare — in part because politicians fear the failure of publicly funded institutions.

One can only be optimistic that new types of provider (such as the Vanguard sites) and other organisational redesign of clinical workflow will be successful and that the current problems are not a collective, unconscious, conspiracy of inaction within the NHS to shift responsibility onto politicians rather than taking direction action themselves.

The policy space for the NHS under the coalition government has removed considerable barriers to innovation, which should point to underperformance as a matter of design, not money.

NHS England and other English health organisations have produced a five year ‘forward view’ [here]. The refreshingly short and precise document establishes a new approach to the

English: British National Insurance stamp.

“Skin in the Game” British National Insurance stamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English health service, something political reform has failed to achieve since perhaps the beginning in 1948, namely the realisation that top-down reform really doesn’t work. This is a bit surprising given how oftenNHS folk have travelled, particularly to the US, and other places, where the notion of a top-down approach is anathema. All these visits, reports and breathless commentary on lessons learned has really, it now seems, to have been for nought.

We also now have some explanation why the attempts to adapt lessons and approaches from other countries has failed — the heavy overarching deadweight of central control has stifled innovation. Given the additional volumes of studies of the NHS, think tank policy papers, round-table discussions and consultation, researchers, in the UK at least, seem to have been trapped within their own paradigm and failed to see the internal fault lines that pointed to this blind-spot.

Anyway, that said, we now see that Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, has not wasted his time in the US, as not only does the report quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but tacitly acknowledges that the US (and other countries, but not in the UK) favour decentralised experimentalisation with payer and service delivery flexibility.

Lawton Burns in his important book on healthcare innovation [The Business of Healthcare Innovation, 2005, @Amazon] notes that one reason the US dominates the health technology innovation space is precisely because of the flexibility to experiment, try new things in healthcare service development.

This report, together with the other surprising ‘discovery’ that the funding of healthcare and social care are also part of the problem, after decades of dysfunction, shows that there is now a window within which major changes can be achieved to remove perverse policy incentives, drop barriers to change and get rid of the zombie administriative rules that kill off good ideas.

So where might this all go? Yes there are some very good examples already in place and one hopes more to come. But putting the cat amongst the pigeons may have other rather interesting consequences.

If we see increased power shifting to cities, will we see Swedish-style county-council run healthcare? Such an approach has the merits of democratic accountability, and challengingly, puts funding options within local taxation strategies. Given years ago I advocated with the other big city in the UK a local-council run NHS which caused no end of criticism, I would be surprised if this doesn’t come back on the agenda.

The rising priority of prevention also highlights one weakness of the NHS.  Dating back to 1819, employers had legal duties imposed on them for the health and safety of their workers, a responsibility which the creation of the NHS in effect removed at least in respect of health.  The report notes that employers pay National Insurance as though that were sufficient motivation. What the report fails to add is that NI employer contributions are not experience-rated in terms of the health of the workers themselves. The NHS has flirted with workplace healthcare in the past, but the concept of “primary care in the workplace” has failed. Stevens will know (and others should) how many countries separate workplace health from general health. Some places call it “workers compensation” and it involves risk-based employer premiums, adjusted for actual workplace health, injuries and accidents. Countries with such systems include the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, and others.  What taxation does is risk-pool, but that means it is hard to link individual behaviour to risk.

American Accountable Care Organisations and other similar approaches in other countries of long-standing, only work when organisations are free to associate in ways that make financial and healthcare sense. US ACOs are forming partly in response to the financial signals in healthcare legislation there, but these signals, coupled with systems of rigourous inspection (and a failure regime), focuses minds. Vertical or horizontal integration in the NHS is needed, and would serve to remove at a stroke the barriers that bedevil patients. I’ve seen how building primary care onto the ‘front’ of the hospital enabled speedy patient access to specialists (they simply came down from the wards) and avoided inappropriate admissions. Buying a nursing home added a step-down into the coummenity releasing pressure on in-patient beds. GP integration toward secondary care pulls diagnostic imaging and laboratory technologies toward the patient, and removes hospital monopoly control of what is the major cause of delayed diagnosis.

But, the end result is in the UK, consumers, patients, employers, have no real skin in the game, which in these days of behavioural economics means that it is additionally challenging in the NHS to activate the essential incentives to align patients around their care, or employers around healthy workplaces other than through moral suasion.

We may need to revisit how to use the NI contributions as co-payments to create the necessary financial incentives that serve to quantify risk to both patients and employers.

Of course, one should be grateful for small miracles, which is why this report is welcomed.

P.S. I suspect this can be done without new money.





Identity Crisis (DC Comics)

Rescue is on the way; thank goodness for the superhero to save us. (DC Comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, there is the proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill, a lobby document which lays out a way to reverse many NHS reforms.

This lobby document, which is what is it, is familiar reading, and brings back various structures that in the past have failed. You can find information on it at this link.

What is interesting about this approach is the aura of respectability that it wraps itself in, by proposing the changes as a legislative draft, almost as though it were ready to go to committee.  This is, obviously, an influencing tactic designed to force debate onto the topics covered in the proposed bill, and disarm critics who don’t agree that the points in the lobby document are the right starting points. In that respect, the lobby document polarises positions, particularly against current policy direction.

The whole lobby document’s comments and notes identifies proposed changes to a variety of existing legilsation. What we don’t find, though is any evidence that the authors were in any way persuasive  or influential during public consultations at the time. We call that ‘sour grapes’.

Approaches such as this suffer from the following:

  1.  a belief that the fundamental values underpinning the health service can only be protected in a particular way and these are the ways things used to be.
  2. a belief that the changes that have been made have violated these values; moreover, that the solutions have made things ‘worse’ as they see it.
  3. selective use of academic research to support the positions that one wishes to avoid changing.

New PublicManagement as reform of government itself must sit uncomfortably with this regressive thinking.

For the authors, they would no doubt point to market failure logic to prove that the NHS should not be ‘marketised’ as they put it, forgetting that a greater fear is ‘government failure’, for which there is ample evidence, not just with the NHS but a whole host of other public initiatives and legislation that has wasted public money.

Healthcare systems are complex and by trying to overlay what they see as simple solutions to the problems they claim arise from the reform agenda of past years, they misrepresent what the actual problems are. As messy, or complex/wicked, challenges, the authors believe that by taking away that messiness, they’ll also take away the problems. But they know just as well as anyone, that their solutions will only create, perhaps even recreate, the very problems that led to reform in the first place, except now they will be today’s problems, not yesterday’s.

One might argue that the authors are committing a type 3 error, of unintentionally solving the wrong problem well, but that would assume that they have are not clear in their minds what they are proposing. Therefore, it appears they are do know better and are committing a type 4 error, of intentially solving the wrong problem well because that fits with their policy preferences, or prejudices.

That’s why this is a lobby document, designed to intensionally convince, (is mislead too strong?) others of their definition of what the NHS problem is.

Regardless, the lobby document and the authors are caught by a fundament policy trap: of solving the wrong problem.

Want to know more?

Government failure in the UK is examined in Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, 2013 (@Amazon) and in Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it, 2013. (@Amazon)

New Public Management was originally conceptualised by Christopher Hood, in 1991, A Public Management for All Seasons. Public Administration, 69 (Spring), 3-19. Some (Dunlevey et al) argue that New Public Management is dead and that governance in the digital era requires greater, not less, government. That may be the case for some, but if you actually look at the tools that are available to government in a digital world, you’d find that there is little reason for government to own or run very much. See Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts, The Tools of Government in the Digital Age, 2007. (@Amazon)

I have found Leslie David Simon’s book, (Woodrow Willson Centre, 2000) an early, and compelling way of laying out the digital agenda in a policy context really well. (@Amazon)

I would also recommend Vito Tanzi, Government versus Markets: the changing economic role of the state, 2011. (@Amazon)


Measuring Up: the health of NHS Cancer Services is a report from Cancer Research UK.

I have no difficulty accepting much of what they have discovered and the report’s key points are sensible. But, two main conclusions are unsurprising and disappointing: more money

English: A male Freckled Duck (Stictonetta nae...

Paradigm Shift: If it sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. English: A male Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and better leadership.

There will never be enough money, so we need to think differently about how we organise care itself. More leadership is a typical lament which says that the people responsible for the service haven’t done what they need to do. When I read reports such as this that call for more leadership I can only shake my head that they were not able to think further about the underlying causal landscape.

Their use of tipping point language is useful, though, as it does suggest catastrophic, rather than incremental, changes are likely. A tipping point means a move from one state to another (like tipping over the milk pitcher), where other factors come into play (otherwise it wouldn’t be tipping!). That suggests that there will be a change of state in which the old rules are unlikely to apply or be useful. After Kuhn, we call this a paradigm shift. Edward de Bono characterises two situations: one he called a problem, where you use existing rules; the other is a crisis for which you need new rules. My take is that the NHS is moving into territory where the need for different thinking is more important than problem-solving. That healthcare is a complex (wicked) and adaptive system should alert us and not surprise us that solutions create new problems and indeed crises.

Based on the report, though, we’re more likely to see hyperactive civil servants and NHS “leaders” rushing about with Powerpoint presentations full of exhortations and flow charts, accountability matrices and maps. We’ve tried that so often, one wonders if there are any other tools in the box. However, that the current state of affairs may have been caused by past reform and changes is an important insight, but to argue for essentially what is more of the same is plain silly. If past actions have destabilised cancer services and tipping is likely, then new thinking and new rules are needed. Did I miss something in the report?

If we take the simple flow of patients through the system, we are told the rate of entry is rising as GPs shift to ‘urgent’ referral, presumably the only way they know to get an oncologist’s attention, but the velocity through the system hasn’t changed. Why should that be surprising when resources are rigid and constrained by NHS structures (such as lack of effective transfer of patient information), and what appears to be performance measurement of the wrong things, creating perverse incentives.

The diagnostic phase is what appears to be rate-limiting across the patient and treatment pathway and hence is the primary blockage. While increased investment in diagnostics would be timely, how to do that is where a paradigm shift is needed. The delay in procuring proton beam equipment (so much in the news) illustrates the procurement logic that undermines service delivery. Entrepreneurial creation of free-standing diagnostic centres, providing on-demand services to oncologists and patients would be one way to deal with this. Does the NHS need to own the equipment, labs etc. or does it just need access to the service? By-passing the GP would also be another option, as the gatekeeping function appears to be another form of avoidable delay (ask women how long it took for ovarian cancer, for instance). Would it not be better for patients to access directly oncology diagnostic centres, which might also speed GP referral in turn?

The policy-down focus on leadership has clearly produced organisations of dubious purpose, but with evocative titles: Clinical Senate. Wow! But systems are judged by their performance, not what they’re called. A focus on leadership shifts cognitive priorities from a service orientation to one of lining up organisational structures, job descriptions, role definitions and mandates, meetings, minutes, but distractions if the challenge is where the rubber meets the road. The intersection of patient with system defines the leadership challenge, not the other way round.

So, what is to be done? I don’t buy the authors’ argument that change-weary people don’t need more change. They may embrace the logic of wholesale paradigm change if it got rid of the nonsense that stops them from doing what needs to be done. My take is that there is a strong case to be made for unbundling cancer services (this logic can apply in other clinical service areas, too) defined by the demands of the patient pathway. I would also look for ways to encourage entrepreneurial solutions, particularly in the form of investment in diagnostic technologies, and in enabling oncologists to work autonomously with each other and with patients. This would call time on the hospitals’ monopoly control of oncologists, cancer diagnosis, testing, and services, which is organisationally rate-limiting, and many of the identified problems are consequences of a system subjected to serious rate-limiting blockers, but lacking the ability to alter its structure to bypass, elminate, or reform those blockers.

In the end, the report is a narrative exhortation to get people to meet and plan to do what they are currently not able to do, or otherwise they would have done what needed to be done. Why not?



The US-based Commonwealth Fund has released a new 11-country comparative ranking of health systems. See the diagram. commonwealth fund table

Before the UK pops the champagne corks, let’s decode this ranking a little bit. Oh yes, before we also get too excited, rankings like this are useful only as a discusion tool. What does it say say operationally, if you had to choose a system to be ill in?

In effect the UK is tops and the US bottom, overall. But there are some disturbing issues with the data that necessitate a reflective pause.

If the UK is 1 for Quality of Care, and 1 or 3 for Access, and 1 for Efficiency, why doesn’t that translate into Healthy Lives? If the US is middling for these, which it appears to be, are we surprised that they have poor efficiency, equity and healthy lives?

What strikes me is that the UK despite having scored 1, that all this effective care, etc. is really ineffective as it doesn’t translate into better results. Efficiency, too, seems a technical measure, and one which also seems to fail to translate. So two quite different systems on the ground, and which are poles apart on the ranking, are competing with each other for impact on people’s healthy lives.

If we look at the other countries through that same lens, we’re struck by how much better they are at driving improved results (in the jargon of the Fund: mortality amenable to medical care, infant mortality, and healthy life expectancy at age 60. It seems to me on this basis, that while France has poor access (really!), it produces the highest ranking for Healthy Lives. Now isn’t that the point of having a healthcare system in the first place? Something else is going on that this ranking is illustrating but which isn’t being drawn out from any commentary,

So, my summary:

  1. The reason the US is last on Healthy Lives is mainly ideological and not for a lack of trying to things better, but regretfully, only for those who have insurance cover, with eye-watering variances from state to state. I do find this surprising to some extent as the US is very well served by a research community that analyses costs and treatment flows and the ability of payers to drive incentives into the system. Perhaps the distributional inequity of access will pass the reform, while the relative inefficiency may be a measure of the tolerance of a wealthy country has for ensuring people who can afford the care do in fact get it. Hmmmm.
  2. The failure of the UK to translate all those 1’s into Healthy Lives is evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the design of the health care system to actually deliver care itself and a fetish with structural reform, rather than organisational reforms which would enable other models of care to emerge. This focus on driving out variance actually drives out innovation rather than enables it: the UK’s public health system eats its young and fails to bury its dead, so the system goes round and round, in some massive holding pattern and people wonder why things don’t change. The system is efficient once you get the care and access, at least defined in terms of general practice is great, but waiting times for tests and access to the hospital based specialists doesn’t really translate well into timeliness. I question the 3 for the UK as countries with direct access to specialists enjoy much quicker access to care and this indeed does translate into the higher Healthy Lives rankings we see.
  3. I’m not sure how you can have a healthcare system that scores 10 for effective care and 2 for Healthy Lives. If you’re getting ineffective care, wouldn’t that translate into poorer results like in Sweden? Hmmmm, again.
  4. It is interesting to see how poorly performing very wealthy Norway is, but then it has a state-run monoply health system. But again, how can you square all those 11’s?  Are the poor results evidence that a state-run bureaucracy is not working? Probably.
  5. Canada’s system is a fragmented mess at the best of times, and affected by a powerful mythology about its performance, premissed mainly on it not being like the US. Restrictions on patient access to care are systemic, and designed in by the slavish belief in the Canada Health Act prohibiting alternatives. A real policy straitjacket, I think.
  6. Finally, the one’s that in the middle, so to speak, Australia, Netherlands, Switzerland may be more worthy of further consideration.


The Wanderer above a sea of fog by Caspar Davi...

Why limit your view when you can see this far? The Wanderer above a sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich, around 1818 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Open Data Era in Health and Social Care”, prepared by GovLab (NYU) has been released.

I have no issue with open data, and the more open the better. However, doctrine may interfere in respect of the way data are viewed in the UK.

The typical model is to focus on the NHS, as the main provider of healthcare services. Certainly, this makes good sense, on its own. But the NHS is not on its own. The title is a bit misleading, in that while Social Care in included, the English NHS this is not integrated, suffers from bureaucratic accounting rules that prohibit pooling of budgets (hence the problems with the Better Care Fund), coupled with means testing, a cash market, and a major role of charities in filling in service gaps. Countries with patient-copayments and transaction data manage to integrate health and social care around the patient because of the ability to avoid arbitary distinctions between provider types and their ownership. As a result of what is both a strength and weakness of the NHS, policymakers have had and continue to have considerable conceptual difficulty integrating public and private provision into a patient-centric and whole-system model of seamless care.

Healthcare is bigger than the NHS as people in the UK can buy private health/medical insurance, pay cash for private treatment or use private hospitals under NHS contracts. In addition, patients seek services from dentists, physiotherapists and pharmacists, and others, who in the main are outside the NHS in terms of practice patterns.

Let’s take medicines. Years ago the NHS explored electronic prescribing, a project initiative I was doing some policy work on. I had asked whether private prescriptions and dental prescriptions were to be included and was told, no, they were excluded as this was an NHS project. Of course, thinking such as this means that they were failing to look at the whole system of medicines prescribing. A patient for instance who is prescribed an antibiotic by a dentist (and they prescribe a lot of antibiotics) would discover not only that that information was not available to their GP, but the GP would likely not know that dental surgery had even taken place. And private/independent prescriptions were simply off the table!

The only way that Open Data Era thinking can prevail is when the English NHS and the Department of Health adopt whole systems thinking. The modern world is full of boundaries that are being breached by new technologies, that are challenging assumptions of the past that in the future will prove dysfunctional.

The NYU report (I am surprised at the lack of whole-system perspective — perhaps they didn’t know about the wider health system??) does not address the distinction between NHS and private/independent data (though they do make the point that Open Data might be used along with private or independently held data, but in the context of my remarks, this seems a fudge).

I won’t go into a detailed analysis of their logic model on page 45 of the report which crystalises their essential argument. Logic models are conceptual models that link various elements (inputs, outputs, outcomes) to desired impact in a coherent (logical) way. Needless to say, they start with NHS data. Examining the Activities/Outputs parts, would suggest that the full realisation of the stated benefits will not be possible. Limiting the data in, as the model does, means that achieving operational efficiency or resource allocation (impacts) will lack private sector comparators for instance. One output, Policies Created/Changed, is immediately compromised by the inability of the model to account for the role of the independent/private and not-for-profit sectors, which is about 10% of the total activity and expenditure. Indeed, their definition of ‘internal users’  (page 48) excludes non-NHS entitities, and they aren’t seen as ‘external users’ who might need to access NHS data. Furthermore, the approaches proposed to capture measurement limits the focus to state-mandated bodies (i.e. NHS), and therefore limits the ability of measurement to assess potentially new approaches to care that may be invented. So much for measuring innovation.

It would have been better to start  with the needs of data users and their objectives, in a whole system approach. This is the fundamental weakness in the logic model and limits the report considerabley. In the end, it makes me worry that the initiative will in the longer run fail to be as successful as it might be.As Einstein said: “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.”