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Sumerian contract: selling of a field and a ho...

A Department of Health contract with a private provider of healthcare

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism reports that £500 million was spent on private health clinics in the NHS that in their view represents poor value for money. No doubt commentators will point to the private aspects of these contracts as evidence that they failed. A few comments on their Report:

  1. The contracts were pre-paid block contracts, and in most cases the complement of procedures paid for were not used. Now whose fault is that? In the same way as hospitals do not go around soliciting business from GPs, these clinics need referrals. The question in my mind is was there so much capacity that the pre-paid procedures weren’t needed? How many patients did not get treated because of a failure to use these contracts? Of course the same thing can happen in the NHS, just people don’t see it as quite the same waste of money as when private contractors are involved. But they are the same.
  2. That the Department of Health is buying them back is the Department’s problem, which the taxpayer has to deal with. I’m not sure what the point of buying them is, especially since they will close and their treatment capacity lost to the doctors. Is there that much excess capacity in the NHS that they can take out that much capacity? The Report doesn’t clarify what is actually going to happen next. I don’t disagree with them about this being a poor use of money, but the decision to remove these facilities from available capacity is a bad decision, regardless of who runs them. The firms running them have excellent clinical performance track records in the main.
  3. The original contracts were commercially naive. But the UK’s NHS has a very poor track record with commercial suppliers, and so to get anyone interested at a time when there were serious shortages of capacity (and still are of course), they had to underwrite some of the risk. Of course, what might be thought of NHS facilities such as Foundation Trusts are increasingly not publicly owned as such but owned by the organisations that run them, and there are similar contracts with them. (GP premises are also private) Keep in mind, too, that pre-paid block contracts are an acknowledged (but poor) way for buying hospital services, so NHS facilities have also benefited from this — but just to be clear, many NHS facilities over-provide on these contracts, run out of money, usually 9 months into the contracts, then have to pull back in the last quarter. With payments based actual activity, you pay for what you buy, which explains in part why NHS facilities are running out of money — they cost more to run than the activity they are providing based on the income they derive from that activity. Nothing to do with being a public or private organisation, but a lot to do with how contracts are structured and of course how the hospital is managed. One hopes that more sophisticated contracting will emerge.
  4. NHS contracts are generally risk-free, that’s why there is the current fuss over competition in the NHS, as it would introduce risk. If risk were introduced, it would naturally level the playing field for private providers. But with risk-free public contracts, all the private providers wanted was the same contract conditions as NHS providers. The sensitivies around this, though, tend to favour a default assumption that the publicly owned, if that is strictly true anymore, institutions are better value-for-money than the private ones, when it comes to clinical activity.

This Report focuses on the expenditure of money without asking the next level of questions which go the heart of how and why money gets wasted in healthcare and why the NHS has so much difficulty with its contracts (let’s not get started on NPfIT).

But the Report is useful by illuminating the financial consequences of poor commercial decisions within the Department and the NHS. I just wonder whether there has been any learning as a result.

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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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The elephant in the room in healthcare is the hospital, about which I have suggested that we will build the last one in 2025.  What will “smart hospitals” look like, and why should we care?

Hospital Universitario Marqués de Valdecilla, ...
Hospital Complex, Spain

Why should we care?

Hospitals are expensive and complex labour intensive organisations originating in industrial era thinking.  Little has been done to modernise the institution itself, although much has been done of course to improve what hospitals do. We also know that hospitals account for a considerable carbon burden and consume a huge amount of energy since they operate 24 hours a day. We know that as labour intensive institutions they suffer from the challenges all such organisations face as they try to improve operating practices and reduce running costs. Healthcare delivery is characterised by regulated cartels, which serve both to protect the public, and protect professional practice from incursion by other health professionals.  A bit like an early 20th century factory with craft guilds.

We should care because these institutions need to become smarter in the use of modern technologies and practices, but this process is slow and cumbersome, and while they evolve, the taxpayer is faced with paying the costs of institutions which in many cases should be replaced. This is not to say that those who lead hospitals are not focused on these issues, but only to say that their job is not easy and with the many vested interests around, challenged.

What would be refreshing would be leadership for clinical workflow change to come from the professions themselves, due recognition of their need to evolve and reform rather than simply protect the status quo.  We need these groups to drive change in healthcare, rather than waiting for politicians or Ministries of Health to set the agenda. Of course, informed and empowered patients will eventually not put up with much of the nonsense that confronts them when they seek healthcare, but that is another story.

What will they look like?

We are left with wondering how to improve how they do what they do.  Enter ‘smarts’. This brings together a constellation of forces currently abroad in the world, ranging from automated building management systems, smart grids, energy recovery systems, to wireless technologies in hospitals to remove the wires.

Coupling smart systems together creates networks that can link patients in their home to monitoring facilities and first-responder capabilities. With the added advantage of wireless, we have untethered remote monitoring.  In the end, we have real-time healthcare.

Smart hospitals will not need to define themselves in terms of their geography or location, that is in terms of buildings. They will define themselves in terms of two factors:

  1. their capabilities and
  2. how they deliver these capabilities.

Indeed, the organising logic of the modern hospital will be replaced with one akin to a dating agency — it will link people with needs to capabilities to meet those needs — built on a sea of clinical, and patient information, and connectivity to various organisations that can deliver the services (healthcare) that is needed.  This breaks the current approach to vertical integration (based on the industrial conglomerate model) and replaces it with the virtual hospital, a network of focused and tasked organisations.

I had scoped such an approach to a redesign effort for a teaching hospital, which would have replaced a campus model (mainly an old building and some attached add-ons) with a distributed and electronically-linked (ehealth stuff here)  network of perhaps 24 centres scattered across a city of a million or so.  But industrial era logic prevailed and they went with the single building.

I guess we won’t get smart hospitals until we have smart planning.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Timing Diagram for...
MRI timing diagram for spin echo pulse sequence (don’t ask)

Progress in healthcare can come from changes to the way clinical work is done.  An example is interventional radiology, which combines radiological investigation with treatment, in a single step.  It moves radiological technologies, such as MRI, CT, Ultrasound, from being mere diagnostic technologies to integration into the surgical work itself.

So why the slow uptake in the UK where a couple of years ago the Healthcare Commission, in one of its investigations, noted that this approach to treatment would have probably saved lives?

The NHS is a slow and late adopter of technologies.  Difficulties giving the necessary clinical freedom to health professionals means that important leading edge, but proven technologies, are slow to be adopted.  The exploration of novel approaches to offering clinical services, outside of hospitals, for instance, in free-standing “theranostic” (therapy and diagnostic) clinics would not only advance the cause of patients, but achieve a step change in service delivery by NHS providers.  Why aren’t the newly freed Foundation Trusts getting on the business of developing services wrapped around this approach to care?

People are obviously of good intent by urging reviews of funding to elected officials in the suitably hushed setting of the House of Commons, but in the gritty reality of healthcare delivery, creative solutions are needed to address not only the timely implementation of interventional radiology, but also overcome the fear of change, of novel technologies and of changes to  clinical practice that change and technology brings.

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A small village clinic in Veliky Vrag, Nizhny ...
Hospital of the future?

Central to all healthcare systems is the notion of the hospital.  Are these remnants of industrial-age or can they be rethought and refreshed for the post-industrial and information world we are likely to inhabit for some time?  Foucault spoke of the birth of the clinic (hospital); I will write about its demise.

The logic of hospitals has a lot to do with aggregation of technologies and brains.  It is easier to move the patient to the hospital where integrated systems kick in and provide care, than to have all that expertise go to the patient.  That paradigm is getting tired, but yet our thinking is still hospital-oriented.  What is the way out?

Evolution of artificial intelligence systems, for instance, points to the possibility of remote locations having access to clinical brains, either embedded in portable diagnostic technologies, or through distributed intelligent systems, or even more mundanely at the end of a telephone.  Perhaps it will take time to be comfortable with robotic surgeons, but remote manipulation of robotic surgical equipment is not inconceivable in daily use.

A rather interesting book from the early 1970s, by Maxmen, The Post-Physician Era, offered thinking about the direction of travel.  While getting many things wrong — we still don’t have shopping malls on the moon, he did, given the thinking of the day, accurately identify AI as a challenge to human diagnosis, and saw the obsolescence of the pharmacist through robotic dispensing.

The overall forces at work here are the migration of specialist human knowledge into devices and into software, that can be used by less-skilled people (i.e. not necessarily clinical professionals).  Self-diagnostic testing kits are just a primitive example.  Roll the clock forward with electronic health records, Web  2+.whatever, and advances in materials science, etc, and we have a constellation of factors which form a new pattern for healthcare service delivery.

And when will we build the last hospital?

It takes perhaps 3-5 years to plan a hospital and a couple to build one.  It is also critical in the design to take into consideration the evolution of use, changing demography, etc, to perhaps 20 years into the future.   I think by 2025 we will acknowledge that the existing hospital infrastructure should not be replaced, but slowly wound down as useful clinical environments.  Given the average useful lifespan of anything from 25 to 100 years, we need to be thinking the thoughts about the last hospital within the next 5 to 7 years.  There are, no doubt, hospitals in the early planning stages, that when built will be instantly obsolete.

Tempus fugit.

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