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.

The Academic Health Science Centre undertakes three important missions:

  • they treat patients

  • they conduct research

  • they teach the next generation of clinicians

The AHSC model, as a structured and integrated organisational form, is most developed in the US, Canada, Netherlands, UK, Sweden and a few others, and emergent in other countries.

They are a distinct and probably unique type of organisation, quite expensive to run (annual revenue streams on the order of €2 billion or more), very complex and home to a diversity of stakeholders. Often, AHSCs are thought of simply as teaching hospitals in a loose affiliation with universities but this underpowers their role.

The AHSC represents the most robust model of an institution that could be seen as sitting at the nexus of innovation and entrepreneurialism in health sciences. They essentially own the challenges facing us in the biomedical and treatment arenas, and have access to, or indeed may own, their own research capacity to solve those problems – they can be seen as both producer of new knowledge and consumer of it. And through their role in the intergenerational transfer of knowledge (i.e. teaching), they can influence future priorities, and clinical treatment practices within healthcare systems. As large and potentially well connected organisations, they have the potential to access considerable sums of start up capital, and spin-out a variety of new companies.

Not all teaching hospitals have the capacity to be an AHSC. Not all universities become an AHSC simply by linking their medical schools to a hospital, anymore than simply bolting on some labs to a hospital creates productive research capacity.

Virtually all countries, and regional economies, prioritise biomedical research probably within at least their top 5 areas of investment – despite frequently have significant deficiencies. While thinking that an AHSCs may be seen as the best local solution, local capacity can be lacking or weak. A critical worry is that AHSCs will be created from small, dysfunctional, and poorly performing institutions into large dysfunctional and poorly performing institutions, wasting public money, frustrating researchers and would-be entrepreneurs, weakening treatment capacity, and failing to deliver the innovations.

Internationally, AHSCs should be seen as sitting at the top of the healthcare pyramid, providing care from the simplest up to the most complex, and with unique expertise. While challenging to national/regional innovation strategies (which are often parochial in perspective), AHSCs should be at the forefront of international collaborations and integral to globalisation of knowledge transfer and evidence-based care.

Therefore, creating an AHSC as a driver of innovation and home to entrepreneur is not to be undertaken lightly.

One aspect of the AHSC that is particularly important to conceptualise and operationalise effectively is how they commercialise their intellectual property as a result of being both owners of problems, and creators of solutions to these problems. Risks here include inappropriate de-risking of research, premature efforts at commercialisation, confusion over ownership of the work itself, and conflict between institutional components on the methods to choose. These all track back into the AHSC itself, and how it is governed and how the executive suite and board, decide what can and cannot be done, or done well.

The paper draws on the author’s professional experience of working in an AHSC, working with an AHSC in thinking through their commercialisation strategy, and comparative policy research on commercialisation of research and strategies.

What is an Academic Health Science Centre?

AHSCs come in many forms. Understanding why particular arrangements are needed is important to ensuring that AHSCs are not created out of poorly performing component institutions. They are not simply an aggregation logic for pooling knowledge and capabilities. AHSCs can be vertically integrated providers through to a confederation of autonomous institutions. In some countries, the structure of AHSCs is accredited, mandated or otherwise designated, while in others, they emerge as a logical and rational solution to various research/ treatment/ teaching challenges. In addition, AHSCs also form networks for further collaboration.

Depending on national funding systems in higher education and in healthcare, AHSCs may have to deal with a large number of government ministries or agencies (in addition to health and higher education: social/community care, research councils, labour, industry/commerce ) which may be at differing levels in government (national/federal, state, local) as well as charitable and international sources. With this comes a diversity of public supervisory and oversight arrangements, which unsurprisingly may conflict on a number of levels: research priorities, service delivery objectives, degrees of institutional autonomy, and not to ignore the diversity of political interest which may complicate this further.

And within this mix, the challenge of coordination looms very large, to accommodate the autonomy of constituent parts, public accountability and institutional mission.

How should AHSCs organise themselves to conduct research and development for commercialisation?

AHSCs should be understood as accelerators of innovation. In virtue of owning the problems, they can disseminate new practices, enhance the evidence base for treatment options, and alter the very structure of service delivery itself.

Therefore, a critical issue for an AHSC is how they go about commercialisation, that is, operationalising the acceleration and dissemination of innovation and how they enable the entrepreneurial nature of researchers.

Particular challenges arise when higher educational institutions and healthcare organisations are state owned and run, with the result that staff (academics and researchers) are public employees or civil servants. This has the potential to create difficulties for individuals who may wish to be entrepreneurial yet retain their relationship to those issues which sparked the innovation in the first place.

Problems in this area have been raised by the French government with respect to the visibility and commercialisation of national research from state-owned laboratories and from the universities themselves. Institutional restrictions on commercialisation can create conflicts as in the UK where the universities pursue one approach while NHS hospitals use NHS/Department of Health commercialisation strategies.

External sources of seed capital are faced with constructing sensible funding arrangements in this environment. This has led institutions such as Karolinska in Sweden or Imperial Innovations in the UK to create an entrepreneurial subsidiary to deal with the commercialisation process. We are a long way from simple technology transfer here.

What are implications for policy: on research, on commercialisation and on higher education?

At some level, AHSCs are ill-defined in the European context, what their characteristics are, how they are organised and perform. Sensible investigation is needed to identify the performance, role and function of AHSCs in Europe, and to understand whether they are in fact a nexus of innovation or a quagmire of bureaucratic interference.

We need lessons and cases to draw on to understand how to structure appropriate innovation policies that may require the formation of high performing AHSCs that can be breeders of entrepreneurs. We also need to think beyond biomedical research as the potential scope of AHSCs includes innovations in systems and ways of working, health information technology and software, medical devices and not just medicines and so on. This nexus of innovation is very broad.

As someone who sees the challenge of AHSCs through both the institutional as well as policy lens, some key areas of priority are implicated and which are presented as conclusions:

  • Funding of AHSCs is not quite the same as funding the constituent parts, so national policies need to be harmonised if AHSCs are to become effective accelerators of innovation and enablers of entrepreneurs. This will raise coordination challenges for governments as the incentives they deploy may come from different pots of money with differing purposes.

  • Institutional design is important and only suitably high performing institutions should comprise an AHSC; this has implications for whether a national accreditation system should be used (England), or policies and initiatives to advance the role of AHSCs (Canada).

  • Commercialisation design is important and plays to national policies on public ownership of publicly funded research, whether state-owned research infrastructure should be disposed off to non-state ownership, with corresponding implications for the employment status of entrepreneurs. National taxation and entrepreneurial policies can be remarkably short-sighted and counter-productive; we really need to understand how bad some national legal frameworks are, and how good others are. AHSCs will be embedded in these legal frameworks, so how productive they can be is linked.

  • We really need to understand how national policies can encourage the introduction of high performing AHSCs where none exist, or prune the numbers of AHSCs if they have proliferated without also achieving high levels of (international) recognition and performance, or enable existing AHSCs to be real drivers of innovation.


Presented at the 2012 Entrepreneuriship conference in Maastricht in March 2012: see here for more details.

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Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...

Some New Thoughts on Education are needed

The new Government’s plans to scrap SHAs by 2012 in an effort to slash NHS administration costs will have ‘major ramifications’ for the future of GP training, and could see budgets cut, warns the GMC. From the GP Bulletin, Pulse, 1 June 2010.

As Mark Twain said, rumors of his death, etc. the issue is overstated as always.  Fear replaces optimism as vested interests worry that they won’t be getting their education funding. But what was it doing with the SHAs in the first place? The creation of some form of market in health professions education, tied in some way to supply management does not in the end ensure a steady and flexible supply of health professions, any more than a similar system would ensure a reliable supply of geologists or accountants. The higher education system fails to evolve in response to the funding, as it is quite separate from the students or the continuing professional development needs of practising professionals.

It is good, though, to know that some see merit in this change as it will, in the end, clarify the purchaser/provider issues and redefine the necessary oversight of the health system. GPs and other health professions, though, do need to be assured that funding is in place to ensure that the programmes they need are properly funded, and accessible in ways that meet their requirements. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the revalidation argument fell at the final hurdle on the issue of a doctor’s time to do revalidation (having had some involvement in this issue in the past, I had calculated the full-time equivalents required to run the system, as well as the time it would take just to read the documents involved — but no one it seems had actually tried to read the paperwork, conduct the required activities with an eye to a clock!).

In the end, the simplest solution is to put the funding in the hands of both the students seeking the study a health profession, and in the hands of either the self-employed GP or their employer (the hospital) to decide what to do. With a level playing field on the provider side, this would ensure that the free-ride enjoyed by the private sector ended, and that all providers were properly responsible for both professional development generally, and CPD in particular. One benefit would be improved accountability by the higher education institutions that have come to monopolise this area, regardless of the quality of their offerings or not.

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What would Florence do?

Who owns a profession and who should take responsibility for its development?

In the UK, the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Future of Nursing and Midwifery has been working away for awhile to determine the future of these two professions, so lets reflect on this question and look at what this Commission appears to be thinking.

The most obvious observation is that it appears to be thinking of nursing and midwifery within an NHS context. Many nurses work outside of the state-sponsored NHS, such in prisons, nursing homes, private and independent settings and workplaces. The Commission’s focus, therefore, on defining the future role of the profession suffers from a dilemma and in resolving this dilemma in a particular way, may further limit these professions to what the NHS defines as its role. This is particularly worrisome given the dire need for fresh and innovative thinking particularly from such a broad and diverse profession as nurses and midwifes which may indeed need to challenge current political and policy thinking.

I wonder whether, too, it is indeed appropriate for the ‘state’ to sponsor this type of work in the first place. The selection of those on the Commission is probably subject to various criteria — one can only hope that these folk are able to address the work of these professions in non-NHS settings in the first place, and secondly can address the dire need for fresh thinking about future demands and innovative approaches to service delivery, however and wherever.

The other concern is the tendency of these sorts of activities to become a restatement of warm words of praise, and in the end fail to move beyond that to address the underlying interconnectedness of clinical work, the interprofessional relationships and clinical responsibility and indeed to more disruptive and potentially more professionally satisfying professional development itself. Regretfully, the so-called “summary vision” is a weak and predictable statement.

There is nothing inherently wrong with addressing the needs of the NHS, but to address it to the exclusion of the legitimacy of the wider and likely future roles is a mistake.  Indeed, the NHS is a stakeholder in the development of these professions, but should not be given too much authority or control over how the professions develop. When the state steps in, as it has in this case, it should do so with the assurance of fairness to the widest possible range of interests, and not just those that fits its current, and probably ideological, preferences.

In the end, the professions own themselves (in an important relationship with their regulator) and should act to ensure that they confront these issues responsibly. Is it a sign of weakness perhaps that this Commission was even needed? Perhaps therein lies a clue to the future of these professions: take responsibility for your profession, as if you don’t others will.