Tag Archives: opportunity

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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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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Integrated treatment is an important step in service innovation, and it is no less important to see how the convergence of diagnostic technologies and methods with treatment methods will lead to integrated, one-stop encounters.  This is more than an integrated provider, but the development of theranostics (therapy/diagnostics), which combine what in the past have been discreet clinical steps into a single diagnostic and treatment encounter.

We are still developing methods here, but in the image guided surgery is an example. The ability to bring together disparate knowledge, currently spread across different brains (i.e. experts) into a single brain will create new clinical professions, shift knowledge from higher levels of expertise to others who delivery services augmented with machine intelligence embedded in the devices. These sorts of development disintermediate clinical workflow, to use disruptive terminology, but reintegrate the clinical workflow in new ways, this time around the patient, rather than the clinician.

Importantly, the diagnostic bottleneck which health systems find causes waiting and delay is likely to be largely eliminated for a wide range of procedures, as at the point of diagnosis, treatment would also be provided. With improved detection methods, too, this treatment will start sooner — we are still learning of the clinical benefits of bio-conjugated quantum dots, and biosilicon, and other new materials, but they are likely to underpin a new health service delivery paradigm.

The equation in the title simplistically represents the shift toward integrated therapeutics, which in the end may be the biggest next step in medicine since discovering germs as will germs came specialisation and the burgeoning of clinicians and expertise, coupled with the universities in creating specialist bodies of knowledge. Ix, integrated care, builds on integrated knowledge (IKnow?) which is something we are slowly appreciating as the problems we face effectively challenge the narrow disciplinary models we see at university and in clinical practice.

The question though is whether policy and decision makers will be bold enough to face up to these opportunities or will vested legacy interests prevail?

Halting the investigation of preferred providers in the NHS does appear political as King’s Fund colleague John Appleby has said. It also illustrates the risky territory the policy would take the NHS into.

Preferred providers are by their nature preferred, but for what reasons? As a patient and taxpayer, I would hope that they were preferred for their ability to deliver exemplary care, not for the nature of their ownership. The latter would ideology ahead of patient care and indeed safety and would hardly be defensible should a patient choose to challenge it in a court.  “M’Lud, the patient is complaining the operation went awry because she was treated at a twice failed preferred provider.” I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that!

This isn’t really about NHS or not NHS, it is really about clinical and service quality, which is what the Department of Health should be focusing on.  Things are only going to get worse for publicly funded NHS provision in England anyway over the next few years.

I am also think there may be a lesson from European law and so-called emanations of the state that are automatically assumed to have a dominant market position, and are therefore enjoined from behaving in certain ways. I am reminded of a German case at the ECJ that found that the state cannot be a monopoly supplier of a service if it manifestly is unable to meet public demand for a service — in other words, you can’t freeze out new market entrants if the sole purpose of the policy is to protect state-funded incumbents.

As for the UK’s NHS, I think I’d want to know if my local provider was a failing preferred provider. I think any Health Department anywhere would not want a policy that looked the other way. Any willing provider should be up the quality standards that would make them preferred providers; anything less is bad policy.

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20 Bonus 2 MW wind turbines at the Middelgrund...
fanning the ineffectiveness of Copenhagen

The whatever they are called talks in Copenhagen on climate demonstrate the broken nature of our approach to achieving consensus amongst a diversity of nations, views, and wishes. The circus will soon close and we may have very little to show for it, despite everyone’s hopes and wishes. A room with THAT many people in it could hardly agree what to put on a pizza, let alone work through a complex drafting of such an important document.

A few points are worth noting:

  1. Trying to achieve an agreement by having the negotiations stretch throughout the night, so no one gets any sleep is bull-headed, and is hardly evidence of clear and coherent thoughts at 3 in the morning.  Early morning tweets from politicians who have stayed up all night just adds to the impression that these people don’t know what they are doing.
  2. The notion that the backroom gang do all the heavy lifting and then the leaders swan in to sign the final draft is well-past its sell-by date. Clearly, neither works.

Savvy negotiators know that getting your opponent to go without sleep is one way to ensure both delay and achievement of your objectives. Tiredness doesn’t just kill on the road, but is a well-established brinkmanship tactic. It is particularly helpful when there is a hard deadline, and great expectations of results; the closer to the deadline with a lack of agreement, the more likely sleep will be deprived and decision-making and clear-thinking begin to fail. Better to add days than nights to negotiations, and drop this adolescent behaviour.

Setting expectations high also creates an opportunity for nay-sayers to bargain their way to a lower level of agreement, giving the impression of failure whereas they may actually have found the spot at which agreement is most likely, but having failed to establish a Plan B, meant that it was Plan A or failure. An existence of a Plan B, though, would have infuriated some advocates for agreement, as it would identify prima facie where compromise would be likely.  The problem in part was that compromise is often seen as failure, rather than agreement by other means. Perhaps it is better to under-promise and over-deliver.

The use of backroom staff is important, but it is evident from Copenhagen that a lot of fundamental bluesky disagreements remained and where solutions lay above the pay grades of the staff involved.  Better than leaders learn to do their own work, and have the backroom staff refine the language, than the other way round.

The problem with Copenhagen appears to be faltering over accountability; this is a re-run of the nuclear arms treaties. One could argue that objections may be well-founded, but we haven’t seen the basis for that. Agreements do need mechanisms to ensure they do what they are intended to do, but we don’t have sufficient vocabulary for what we need as in the past, most agreements were either treaties with broadly equal partners (e.g. Treaty of Rome) or were imposed by victors over vanquished (take your pick here). This seems more like a communitarian process, with considerable inequality. Perhaps some lessons from community development models would have been helpful.

Of course, this is all quite apart from whether a deal is pulled out of the hat, and whether it is a deal or just a political fix.

Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursin...
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.

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.