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English: Broken glass

Sometimes, the system is the problem. Broken glass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This report on the regulation of private hospitals in England from the Centre for Health and the Public Interest is important, but 15 years too late.

The UK has had and continues to have a love/hate relationship with the private (or independent as it is termed) healthcare sector. This has created a significant fault line across all reform and policy making on the NHS for at least 15 years. Reluctance to create a level regulatory playing field has been evident for years, despite the obvious need for one. I think part of the reason is that creating a level regulatory playing field so that the NHS and private hospitals had to meet common standards would legitimate the private sector itself.

However, when I first worked with a colleague to suggest, around the early 1990s, that the NHS hospitals should undergo some sort of accreditation, resistance was clear. At the time, I noted to others that there were more deaths in NHS hospitals arising from substandard care than from road traffic accidents.

But the view at the time was to ring-fence the NHS from that sort of performance and quality scrutiny at an institutional level. Based on some of the work I was doing at the time, and my own experience with accreditation systems, I felt that the negative reaction reflected a fear that NHS hospitals would fail; using pretty standard accreditation standards from the US, Canada and Australia at the time, I perceived that many NHS trusts would indeed fail. Mainly on safety and quality control grounds (I was teaching NHS managers about quality and quantitative methods in healthcare at the time). Many hospitals lacked any quantitative analytical or operations management capabilities within their organisation and had rather weak data for quality control and performance management purposes. The Department of Health, it must be said, had such expertise on contract but that was to inform their own policy making, not to improve operational performance. I would suggest that such quantitative expertise for quality is still missing at the hospital level.

The consequence has been years of fiddling with quality assurance and inspection regimes. Government has been advised, I think badly, by people who also shared the operative underlying assumption that a single regulatory and inspection system for both the NHS and private hospitals would be politically a step too far. Consequently, the private sector and the NHS have moved in different directions. The private sector has been both an opt-out for patients through private insurance arrangements, and an overflow supplier to the NHS when it ran into capacity constraints. Only more recently, has it been a direct and core supplier of services.

The UK situation constrasts wildly with practices in other countries where ownership of the hospital does not exempt the organisation from regulatory oversight. Indeed, many European hospitals seek out US-based Joint Commission International accreditation, a very high standard. Interestingly, there are no private providers in the UK that have achieved this standard, while (with any type of accreditation) there are 26 in Ireland, 3 in Belgium, 2 in Netherlands, 4 in Germany, 26 in Italy, 15 in Portugal, 23 in Spain, 13 in Malaysia and so on. Perhaps they know something?

I agree with the report’s sentiments, though perhaps not so much how it characterises the private sector as exceptionally risky. Indeed, the past years have demonstrated that NHS hospitals can be exceedingly risky. For instance, the report notes the 6000 admissions per year to the NHS from independent hospitals, while also noting that such hospitals do not have emergency facilities. One might ask whether a common regulatory environment would have led some independent hospitals to invest in such facilities? But such a figure should not be a surprise any more than transfer between NHS secondary hospitals of patients who need more complex tertiary and quaternary care; not every organisation can do everything. In respect of equipment, NHS equipment, too, has failed, gone missing or not worked properly (I have had personal experience of a nurse using equipment that lacked recent calibation); so before we cast the net, let’s make sure we know what we’re fishing for.

The report notes that the private hospitals do not directly employ their doctors, as though this were a problem. Many countries do not directly employ doctors, using fee-for-service type arrangements for compensation. What the report failed to note is that the private hospitals in the UK employ a system called “privileges”, which requires doctors to prove competency in areas for which the hospital in turn grants them privileges to offer that service in the hospital; NHS hospitals do not use a comparable system. I have argued that the NHS should introduce a privileges system, which would bring a more rigourous standard of clinical performance management than the NHS consultant employment contract does and would have the additional benefit of increasing flexibility in the supply of doctors, and perhaps importantly, keep doctors within their scope of primary competency.

A few other points that struck me:

1. Clinical risk does not transfer to the private provider when treating an NHS-funded patient. I’m not sure how this is a useful restriction, especially if the patient chose the private hospital. It seems to me that part of a level playing field would ensure that clinical risk transferred, too. The report addresses this obliquely in terms of whether the NHS is the provider of last resort.

2. The observation that clinical workflow is different is interesting, but it does appear somewhat anecdotal. The private sector is excluded from the requirement to take trainees, and that may contribute to the lack of depth, but I doubt the public would feel reassured that the clinical depth the authors referred to was reliance on trainees! We know what that looked like with registrars. The solution is to ensure the private hospitals are included in the system for training the health professions as a consequence of a common regulatory regime. By the way, I’ve looked at the supervision and training of junior doctors and other health professions and one should not be complacent that it is done well. However, I share the authors’ concerns over the organisation of clinical work, but would not single out the private sector on this point.

3. The volume of work in specific areas is a point well taken. However, I would again suggest that is an artefact of the regulatory system, and lack of effective use of the clinical resources themselves. Proper contracts for suitable volume, rather than handling overflow, would shift workload closer to levels where higher quality standards apply. It might also enable the consultant, for instance, to integrate their clinical workloads, rather than adding the private patients on at the end of an already busy day. Again, organisation of work arises from the current rules and may perhaps be causative of may of the identified problems.

4. I note that only one of the two authors is a specialist in healthcare or health policy, particularly patient safety with grounded expertise.

Many of the report’s comments, with which I broadly agree can seem quite disturbing, really arise from the regulatory box that the private sector has been put in. Given that private hospitals use the same doctors in the main as practise in the NHS, do these doctors lose their minds when they practice privately, or something else is certainly wrong at a system level. My guess is that the box is the problem, and the private hospitals are quite capable of meeting care standards, given a level playing field.

My remarks are meant to focus attention on the important distinction between the NHS as an organising principle for ensuring (and assuring) healthcare to people and the mechanisms used to identify and engage providers who meet the requisite standards. Focusing on the latter, would necessite doing what the report recommends, but ’tis a shame it has taken this long, to say once again, what has been said for years.

Is now any different?

Further reading: Vito Tanzi’s excellent book, Government versus Markets The Changing Economic Role of the State. Then think again about this

report.

Disclosure:

1. I don’t have private health insurance.

2. I have received NHS-funded care in a private hospital.

3. My NHS trust has recently been reviewed as overall inadequate by CQC.

4. I know something about the issues I am writing about.

The UK government is releasing, over time, its review of the balance of competencies of EU legislation. Within the first 6 papers released is the one on Health, Review of the Balance of Competencies between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Health.

At minimum, these reviews provide a timely perspective on this balance of competencies, and provides a focus for further commentary. Other EU members states may find it useful to be reminded what this balance is. It is not always in the interests of the European project to look at all things taken together as it shows whether overall the claimed benefits are in fact there. But such policy review, if that is another way of talking about them, does draw a line in the sand against which to measure and assess changes in the future, and avoids the problem of the boiled frog syndrome, where small incremental changes are not noticed until it is too late.

Health is a funny subject for the EU as it is both inside and outside the European competency box, depending on how you define things. Countries can run their healthcare systems broadly as they wish, and maintain control of financing, but the European Court of Justice, in a variety of decisions, has defined the contours of that national control, as seen through the lens of the single market, and freedom of movement of goods and services in particular — both of which are agnostic with respect to health. It all depends whether you think of healthcare systems commercially or socially. That hospitals are socially beneficial but also commercial entities does not help, any more than drugs as goods flowing across EU borders, and so on.

The report concludes in the main that the balance is about right. There is little argument with the benefits of European action in medicines regulation, public health, tobacco, etc. Where the UK has a problem is with employment policy as it impacts the UK more generally and the National Health Service specifically. Different logic of the relationship between the employee and the workplace applies in the UK and this throws up a wide range of relevant issues.

The Working Time Directive is the elephant in the room here. The concerns are how the NHS structures clinical work, trains junior doctors, and generally organises itself to provide for continuity of care. Other countries, not just the European ones, have the same concerns about over-worked doctors. The heroic fictional doctors on television, who nap on couches and awake fully prepped to save patients is fantasy. Next time you’re in mid-Atlantic, be grateful your pilots got a good night’s sleep. The criticism of the WTD is more an indictment of the inability of the NHS and its massive provider infrastructure to put in place appropriate patient management systems that ensure a sensible balance of workload and rest. But the Health Paper makes the point that the European Court’s judgements have actually further constrained operational flexibily within the NHS. While the paper notes that the NHS operates on a 24 hour system, it actually doesn’t as it isn’t fully staffed on weekends, and many services operate within a traditional working hour day (e.g. laboratories, imaging). Much of this arises from the politically influenced structure of the NHS which has made it very difficult for alternative providers to enter the healthcare market in the UK, and thus offer relevant services, whether day-case surgery, or imaging, at times more convenient to patients. However, other countries in Europe appear able to manage demand and service provision more easily, so one much wonder why the NHS problems of their own doing.

The other area that exercises the NHS is free movement of patients. Medical tourism is a big issue in the UK, as its health system is based on residency. Social insurance systems have built often formidable barriers to gaining healthcare cover because they generally link the insurability with the workplace. Self-employed individuals are frequently disenfranchised from full benefits, and often pay disproportionately. Retired people continue to need insurance. But an insurance system does make cross-border transactions much easier. The UK has not really understand the operational dimension of the differences for UK taxpayers moving within Europe. The Limosa Convention is not mentioned in the briefing, while the European Health Insurance Card is. The EHIC is only really for tourists and retired people and the paper promotes the benefits of them. However, the EHIC is not for people temporarily located in another country for employment or work purposes.  They do not refer to the bureaucratic overhang of the A1 and S1 forms needed for people working in other EU countries and the forum-shopping associated with it as countries seek to get ‘the other country’ to pay the bills. I wonder how many people realise they need an S1 to run a seminar in another country as this is defined as work, or that working from home and living in country A while your office is in country B could be a bureaucratic nightmare. The report is silent here.

Urinal

Industry accountability for public contracts. (Photo credit: Ron Knox 2001)

I was watching the Public Accounts Committee on 23 May 2011 take evidence from IT suppliers and NHS executives on the NHS IT contracts. This monstrous contract was doomed from the start, yet few seemed to be in a position of influence to alter the ‘group think’ that prevailed in government. Civil servants and ministers seemed to breath each other’s air as they pursued this pig in a poke. Worringly, the PAC exchanges shed a bit of light but more revealing was the lack of common language amongst those concerned. Frequently, answers were not relevant to the question, used jargon or introduced further obfuscation.

In the end, whether supplier or NHS exec, the PAC was faced with a sea of denial, avoidance, or sheer hubris. I say hubris as NHS executives in particular were at pains to avoid rocking their own boat by being completely candid about things, preferring warm phrases that all was well, despite the CEO of the NHS being unable to answer many questions clearly, and seemed painfully ill-informed of his brief.

Evidence of obfuscation abounded as the MPs had to ask suppliers many times to answer with yes/no to what were straightforward questions. I was impressed with the efforts of some MPs (Bacon in particular) to get clear answers to important questions.  As a rule, complex answers betray a lack of understanding of the underlying logic — there are simple answers to these questions, not ‘it depends’ or ‘you’re comparing apples and oranges, pears’; indeed, at one point, the sessions seemed more about the comparative merits of different fruits than IT procurement. As well, the lack of clarity of underlying logic also evidences people were unable to agree on what the core problems were.  Now, granted for some this is likely to be a complex problem (in the technical sense of the word, a wicked problem), but I doubt that — the NHS’s needs and responsibilities are complex, but an electronic health record is a thing, with a defined functionality.

I remember sitting in a room just as this NHS IT for heatlhwas being firmed up (2002), and hearing the Director (Granger) at the time speak glowingly of the benefits. Upon hearing this, others in the international teleconference asked, “surely you’re not serious about doing this”, to be told, “absolutely”. As is said, act in haste, repent at leisure.

An important question was, knowing what we know today, was the original decision to proceed with this central and top-down approach sensible? The answers were evasive and broadly technically wrong. In 2002, it was perfectly possible to develop distributed systems, with broadly distributed functionality using various systems integration options to enable diverse technical architectures to co-exist to deliver uniform service. No one wanted to think that way for a couple of reasons. The first is ego: grand plans appeal to people’s ego needs, to be in charge of something big. The Director at the time exhibited serious Machiavellian behaviours, and failed miserably to engage users.  The second is conceptual: at the time, Department of Health and NHS executives were still thinking the NHS was a single lumpen thing that needed single solutions to its complex problems. In the early 2000s and late 1990s, that the NHS should be seen as a complex adaptive system was understood, but not acknowledged as it flew in the face of prevailing ideology about central control, driven by the mistaken (technical) belief that a distributed system, while diverse and pluralistic, would be unable to deliver a common standard of performance.

In the end, you end up with a system that is rigid, technically obsolete as soon as it starts operating and because it fails to evolve with changing clinical needs, which will change as clinicians become familiar with the technology and comfortable with its use, and start to specify more sophisticated applications. That some PAC evidence said that clinician need had evolved is nonsense — we know then that these were the core needs. Anyway, we’re moving on to smartphone apps, and there is little evidence that the system can accommodate the wireless world of healthcare. The best selling clinical app is ePocrates, for drug information. How many clinicians have that app? How many clinicians are using smartphones? Distributed and simple systems can deliver often quite complex solutions; for instance, the Danish electronic prescribing system was built on simple secure emails.

The approach that was ignored at the time was this:

  1. specify common standards of interconnectivity and functionality, that is results;
  2. allow providers to use whatever system they wished as long as it met these requirements;
  3. allow the system to evolve over time as needs become better understood;
  4. start with the patients who are heavy users (high risk/high utilisation) and roll out from there.

That’s it.

Where the English NHS and Department also lost the plot was failing to exploit the NHS IT project to drive innovation into the IT sector to encourage the formation of a potentially world-class health IT industry in the UK. Is it any coincidence that the main solutions are from outside the UK and the critical supplier expertise betrayed North American origins?

This is a real shame, as once again the Department has shown antipathy toward enabling a commercially successful and innovative health supplier industry, in favour of mean-spirited control. This was perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, as instead, the Department came up with false logic of needing suppliers of scale (who are now quasi-monopolists).  Indeed, one member of the PAC did question whether CSC’s corporate logic was to make itself a monopoly supplier to the NHS.

The tragedy, too, is that virtually all the functionality that the NHS needs can be downloaded for free in the form of open source software.

Finally, the best thing the NHS and the Department could do is make sure all that intellectual property that has accumulated is given away, to try again to jump-start a health IT industry. If there is a value-for-money lesson the PAC could draw it is to determine whether there is sufficient residual value in the NHS IT procurement to be translated into investment in the economy, to build new suppliers to the NHS and perhaps the world. An opportunity awaits.

UPDATE

I thought I’d add reference to this diagram on distributed clinical systems. The copyright dates from 2002, a time when the PAC was told such capability didn’t exist. The diagram is taken from the OpenEHR website, which adds “Much of the current openEHR thinking on distributed computing environments in health is based on the excellent previous works of the (then) OMG Corbamed taskforce, and the Distributed Healthcare Environment (DHE) work done in Europe in EU-funded projects such as RICHE and EDITH, and the HANSA and PICNIC implementation projects.”  In those days, the UK’s NHS was still charting a proprietary, and non-standard, approach to EHRs and clinical systems; an example of one failed programme is the ‘common basic specification’ — there is an interesting commentary here on some reasons why it failed.

 

Diagram of a distributed clinical system, ca 2002

 

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300 The Movie

Health Politics (Photo credit: Quang Minh (YILKA))

The NHS Confederation wants it all to stop, according to journalist reporting in the press (for example, here).

Over the years, there has always been this fear of the words NHS and political football being in the same sentence. Perhaps the better approach for both the government and the NHS would be for the NHS to more explicitly engage in the political debate.

Mike Farrar, the new head of the NHS Confederation (which seems to have its own problems), says that the system is a democracy. Yes, but what does that mean? It should mean empowered to participate in the machinery of democracy and political debate, and not just take orders.

By explictly engaging in the political debate, NHS actors would widen the marketplace in ideas that the political space needs to chart the future direction for the NHS. This would create greater political space between the NHS (whatever that actually means these days), the civil servants in the Department of Health, and the political machinery of government. At least at a public level, NHS actors have avoided the political dimension, thinking it a better strategy not to become ensnared in the politics. But of course, their political debates are more likely to be argued through responses to government consultation documents, presentations to the Health Commmittee, exchanges at professional conferences (but this is frequently a one-way dialogue), and closed door meetings. They are all generally well-behaved, articulate and ineffective, but importantly not engaging citizen preferences.

This stance may be past it usefulness, especially if the providers of care are supposed to really engage with their local communities.

The purchasing side of the equation is equally fraught with avoidance of too much public engagement and as a consequence, purchasers (I do like that word), seem destined for provider capture, and the protection of legacy provision (mainly to avoid any hint of private sector participation). Hardly a reform agenda. The new Agences Regionales de Sante in France may actually show how this should be done, but again that is another story. Major reform is not just a UK thing.

Providers have weak public affairs capabilities, little political nous, and less ability to galvanise public understanding of the options facing providers. They, too, may be subject to capture by their own professional staff, so disruptive changes are avoided to keep the peace.  Foundation Trusts may not exercise their autonomy well, perhaps discomfited with the notion of too much autonomy generating an unfavourable press.

Anyway, one benefit of greater engagement in the political arena would be to shift the logic internally from the NHS being a policy-taker, waiting for the politicians to decide what to do, to becoming a more active participant in the marketplace of ideas for the healthcare, in effect a policy-giver. As such, the NHS, taken together, has virtually no political capacity, no capacity to develop structural options, no formal relationship with the public to seek their views on this or that.

All this has been handled by the Department of Health which sets the tone for the political debate and defines what is and isn’t in the frame from a reform perspective. This serves the Department just fine, as it furthers the role of the Department of Health as being responsible for the publicly funded health system, which is not a bad thing given how much public money it consumes. But it also means that the Department is the only one framing the political debate, and that is not particularly good for democracy. And not all political positions need to be played out in the Commons, but can be debated vigourously in the real world as NHS organisations drive forward changes. Keeping NHS organisations on a short lead only means more work for the Department of Health, but less value being derived from all the people running hospitals and clinics.  It is time to replace notions of the NHS as a single ‘thing’, like supertanker which takes forever to change, with the concept of a school of fish, which can change direction really easily and quickly.  See my blog post on distributed systems in health care here.

But arguments are what they get because the object of their affections has weak autonomous and collective decision-making structures, and a cognitive capacity to engage in the arena of ideas except through special interest groups such as the health professions or Royal Colleges, or the Confed. These do not represent the interests of the provider side of the NHS, but only their interpretation of these interests through their own lens on the NHS.

The Confed is not sufficiently robust to act in a political capacity in this arena despite publishing various position papers and having a lobby office in Brussels (funded I believe in part by the soon to depart Strategic Health Authorities), and attracting high-profile people, all of which are worthy.  But the Confed is shot through with conflict of interest problems and may not be certain what its role is — time will tell.

Mr Farrar speaks in this article of a ‘public interest test’, for example. Well, the challenge for NHS structures is simply to introduce it as a matter of managerial autonomy and good practice. If it is such a good idea, why wait for the government to make up its mind. With all the smart people supposedly thinking grand thoughts about the future of the NHS, would it be too much to expect someone to be courageous enough simply to get on with putting these ideas into practice, to test them out.

It would also nicely balance the political realm, as the NHS actors would be demonstrating their ability to get on their job of managing the healthcare system with innovative approaches, without legislative intervention.

The problem as always is courage.

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Surpluses (and deadweight loss) created by a m...

If only it were that simple!

The current debate in the UK, specifically England, on reforms of the publicly funded health service have raised the red-flag of privatisation. Hostility has centred in the main on private firms offering health services and the scope and meaning of ‘any willing provider’.  Signals from politicians are confusing given they are walzing back and forth across the dancefloor depending on criticisms. Indeed, there appears to be some risk that dance partners may change, as the Lambs, for instance, change sides to avoid slaughter in the arena of public opinion. Such self-interested face-saving aside, is there an issue to answer here?

Article 106(2) TFEU as a general interest exception: which involves invoking public interest grounds, specifically, “undertakings entrusted with the operation of services of general economic interest … shall be subject to the rules contained in this Treaty … in so far as they application of such rules does not obstruct the performance … of the particular task assigned to them. The development of trade must not be affected to such an extent as would be contrary to the needs of the Community.” [Community here referring the EU, not the local community.]

In operationalising competition arrangements, the EU approach is built on simple foundations, of equal treatment, and that firms given special treatment cannot also be protected through public measures which favour them.  There has always been some debate about public monopolies and what has been called ’emanations of the state’, and through it all a recognition that state organisations are deemed to have a dominant position that they cannot abuse — perhaps more importantly, state organisations delivering a service cannot be protected by the government engaging in abusive market practices simply to protect them. It is certainly an abuse for a government to create a monopoly that cannot deliver the services required.

From an EU perspective, can states create a monopoly situation simply because they want to avoid competition in a particular area of the economy? Well, presumably yes, if it is of general economic interest, and if the prohibition of competition is necessary for the resulting bodies to do their job.

The ‘get-out’ clause is whether restriction on competition is necessary for the NHS to do its job. What is the job of the NHS?

If it is to procure health services from any “qualified” provider, then it is a procurement body and restrictions on competition would not be appropriate as this might lead to contracting for services from a subset of qualified providers who would be preferred on other than a level playing field — that public and private firms compete on an equal basis. The interesting question underlying the assumption is also that there would be market failure otherwise. But one test of market failure is that there are no providers willing to enter the market. But an any provider situation presupposes that isn’t true, that firms would enter the market and provide health services. So prohibiting competition effectively partitions the market in favour of public providers and that doesn’t seem to sit with the general EU competition tests. There is a subtle change in terminology that may be political but may be important (hah!): between any willing provider and any qualified provider — being willing isn’t enough, being qualified is, but can the determination of being qualified act to restrict access to the provision of health services, as being qualified may preclude organisations that might provide care, i.e. they are willing, but currently aren’t.  A bit like the only way to learn glass is fragile is to break it, the only way to find out if an organisation is qualified is to let it offer services. Of course, with an onus on qualified, there could be a presumption in favour of legacy providers, as obviously they are willing and qualified. (How many angels was that again?)

Does the EU treaty permit monopolists to abuse their dominant position by providing a service to a level less than is needed? In other words, can the purchasers purchase in such a way as to ignore lower cost/higher service level providers in order to protect the legacy NHS providers? Not really, as that violates the simple test of neutrality with respect to ownership status under competition law.

Granted that the purchasers could argue that financial controls are necessary as not everything would be affordable for everyone all at once, but the ECJ healthcare rulings have established a base line test: would the person involved eventually get treated? Saying ‘no’ is not an option for a state monopoly health service as that is called rationing and the ECJ has ruled that such decisions must be made on the basis of international clinical evidence, not administrative niceties.

So we are left with the question whether the prohibition of competition is necessary for the NHS to provide care. This is where it is necessary to decide whether the providers of health services in England are really state-owned entities, or simply contracted-in subcontractors. GPs in England have always been private businesses, though they have badged themselves as within the NHS since 1948, unlike community pharmacies, who similarly have virtually monopolistic contracts with the government, but are more readily perceived as not part of the NHS. It seems that as soon as you create a distinction between the delivery of services from the purchase of those services, you create the basic conditions for a market, for contestability, and by definition have eliminated the applicability of the market failure argument.  So the NHS delivers services of general economic interest, but it is not necessary for the delivery of that service to prohibit competition.

That means that the competition rules apply.

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Data Source http://www.irdes.fr/EcoSante/DownL...

GDP Expenditure

With the new coalition government in the UK, we are seeing early signs of a serious assault on public spending on the state run NHS. Similar challenges await other European countries with bloated public debt. Part of the debt run up by Greece, for instance, arose from efforts to off-shore hospital debt.

In the end the question remains, as it always has, how much money should a country spend on healthcare. The answer, as has always been the case, is as much as you can afford. Research shows that levels of spending (in terms of percentage of GDP, for example) do not correlate well with health status, outcomes and other key indicators of the performance of a health system. Indeed, it can be said with some degree of confidence that GDP spending is NOT an indicator of health system performance.

What does appear to be a factor though is HOW that money is spent and HOW the system is organised to deliver health services.  Recent OECD work has clarified various characteristics of health systems. What is striking are a couple of already familiar features:

  • Not all countries pay 100% of the health bill from the public purse; many, such as France, use co-payments. Countries with socially unacceptable waiting lists have tended to be those with the highest levels of pure public expenditure (such as the UK, Norway and Canada). What this suggests is that there may be important features in how health systems organise themselves to deliver care that is adversely affected when the system is funded from general taxation. Efforts to introduce purchaser/provider separation, for instance, is an effort to create distance between the two quite different objectives, which in tax funded systems have been merged and caused considerable policy confusion, as well as operational difficulties. (I can mention the situation in the Canadian province of Alberta, where the response to funding constraints has been essentially to ‘nationalise’ the system, thus removing key drivers for reform. I can also refer to the Nuffield, UK, study that showed poorer health outcomes in the centralised health system in Scotland compared to now quite devolved purchaser/provider based system in England; and this despite having higher per capita expenditure in Scotland.)
  • Most countries have mixed economies of provision and relatively easier ways for new types of providers to emerge. Lower performing health systems seem to discourage new providers of care to enter the health market; this is an element of overall system design, perhaps regulatory over-reach and dated statist thinking.  But perhaps we are becoming smart enough to know how to design more responsive health systems, which in the end are almost chaotic given the nature of human beings and illness (random?) and so need to be understood as complex adaptive systems rather than tightly managed and controlled (think of the tightly coupled banking system which lacked the ability to realign itself quickly and effectively in response to a financial shock; Homer-Dixon’s remarkably prescient work here is worth looking up).  Managed designs usually end in tears, as they fail to deliver the responsiveness and flexibility that is critical for healthcare to respond to changing demand and fluctuations caused by shocks to the system.

There is no right number of doctors or nurses or hospitals or beds. What there is, though, is the right number of these for the design and structures necessary to deliver effective care.  And these can be designed and developed to use human talent differently, and more effectively.

In the UK, we will hear a lot about ‘front line services’ and protecting them from cuts. I have no problem with protecting front line services, but that does not mean that they will not be delivered in different and novel ways, that may be a better use of the expertise available.  The health professions will undoubtedly circle the wagons and predict dire consequences to the public, so called shroud waving. But what is better is a recognition that healthcare systems are highly inefficient; they are weak adopters of revolutionary change, and they are protective of established working practices — part of the reason for this protectiveness arises from the health professions having become co-dependents to the addiction to public money on the one hand and protected ways of working on the other. In a nutshell, they have become resistant to innovation and reform, and in some respects lost control of the their profession and the profession has ceased to evolve to meet the care needs of people — an emergent adaptive response characteristic of complex systems.

Hospitals are artefacts of industrial era organisational design principles — they embody craft mentalities in the organisation of care, and build on public support to protect their infrastructure (from closure, for example), rather than the public demanding better services, which may not require a hospital in the first place. The difficulty people have in unbundling a hospital (it can be done and I can share the algorithm with you in another post if you like) simply reinforces the protected nature of healthcare work. In part, the emergence of e-health (more precisely, the use of digital information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence/neural networks, predictive algorithms, smart devices, etc) offers a serious challenge to established patterns of working, as these various components have the collective effect of redistributing knowledge, embedding knowledge and skill in devices, and altering the use of bricks and mortar infrastructure — a high-tech/low touch outcome is not the necessary outcome if we are clear on our outcomes.

It is also not just a matter of a cost-effectiveness study of whether an e-consultation is better than a face-to-face consultation.  The evidence for this is actually quite easy — when the telephone was invented, businesses might have one, on a stand, which people would queue up to use. Now, a modern business would hardly do a business case to put a telephone on everyone’s desk — indeed, it hardly needs a business case to ensure everyone has a smart phone — yet in healthcare, smart phones are still rare, yet have the potential to radically alter information flows and hence work flows — 25% of US doctors now have one and ePocrates is one of the most downloaded clinical apps from Apple store, so it is coming. You don’t do a business case when the underlying business logic itself is what will fundamentally change and that is really what e-health is all about.

They say, in capitalism, that it works partly through a process of creative destruction. Otherwise, we’d still be riding around in horse-drawn buggies, and you wouldn’t be reading this note on a computer linked to the internet. There is, however, a general reluctance to apply that process to publicly funded institutions, and by extension to publicly funded ways of working.  The words government and entrepreneur are an oxymoron for many people. But that does not have to mean that public funding cannot be used to incentivise new ways of working and new forms of healthcare delivery. The challenges, in the end, lie in our heart and willingness to change, to create and innovate.

And so to austerity. There is little to fear, except our ability to resist change, protect legacy ways of working, and failing to grasp the real prize, that of doing things better and more effectively.  We will, no doubt, hear the opposite.

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Arizona, poisonous snake warning sign.

Beware digital errors as they can bite

We all know accidents (unusual occurances in healthcare) can happen. Where systems are involved, errors can arise from how a system works, the way the various bits mesh, the knowledge and training of everyone involved working together.  It is no real surprise that some errors arise from the technologies that we use. In particular, health information technology systems can cause new types of errors and mistakes, beyond just not working properly.

In the US, the Health IT Policy Committee has proposed establishing a database to track potential safety risks related to IT systems.  These risks include:

  • hardware and software failure and bugs
  • workflow interactions between staff and users
  • interoperability problems
  • implementation and training deficits.

Since healthcare work is complex, the workflow risks are particularly complex and can arise from, for instance, inaccurately understanding how a manual system achieves its results, and thereby designing a software-based system that fails to do just that. There is a funny little thing that happens when a patient sees a doctor; the doctor often will use writing a prescription to terminate the patient encounter — tearing the piece of paper off the tab, a swirl of signature and handing the slip to the patient leads to the patient leaving, a neat way to end the consultation.

In an automated system (electronic prescribing, for instance), the consultation is not terminated in this behavioural manner, but involves essentially hitting the return key on the keyboard to enter the required prescription data in the system, and perhaps handing (or not) the patient a copy — but the Rx is off on electronic wings to the pharmacy for dispensing. There is an error that can occur if the doctor does not hit the return key between patients — the Rx list builds up, from patient to patient, until the return key gets hit (unless some sort of failsafe has been built in); this error actually happened and it was an alert pharmacist commenting to the patient that the doctor had added a lot of new drugs that the alarm was raised. Perhaps the patient should have been more distrustful, too.

We must be mindful of risk and error in any kind of technology, but particularly in systems where it is very hard to look inside the black box of software code.

I wrote a paper on digital risk some years ago, which can be found here: Patient Safety and Digital Risk. I have also raised the issue of risk in the even blacker box of predictive algorithms used to data mine record systems and profile risk of patients and this can be found here: Predictive Health. This second paper suggested that software may need to be subjected to comparable regulatory review like a medical device.

Just because you can’t drop it on your foot, doesn’t mean something can’t be dangerous.