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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 lost of my trilogy picks up on medicines again.

In the US, not taking medicines correctly is thought to be the fourth leading cause of death – could this be true?

WHO data on mortality captures medicines use in a variety of categories. I ran the data on the categories concerned with medicines-related harm (ICD-10 codes: X40-X44,X60-X64,Y10-Y14,Y45-Y47,Y49-Y51,Y57). It is less than 1% for any European country for the whole population, but breaking it down by age cohorts reveals interesting results that show at different ages, in different EU countries, there are age-related variations in cause of death, rising with age. None, however, emerges as a leading cause of death on its own.

However, medicines use sit within a system of patient care. Therefore, medicines misuse and medication errors may create conditions for a co-morbidity to assert itself. And of course, whether the drugs were toxic for the patient at a particular dose (keep in mind, pills for instance come in standard sizes and may need to be cut in half or so to get an accurate dose for a patient). Working through this data, though, does highlight areas to pay attention to, and in particular countries where there appear to be noteworthy higher risk. I’d like to see better analysis of medication errors.

Once again, before we target the drugs bill as being out of control, let’s get a better understanding of the dynamics of medicines use itself. We may be spending money foolishly or carelessly. What are the incentives in health systems that may actually encourage this sort of professional conduct?

The devil is not just in the detail, but in the data and in clinical practices.

Want to know more?

WHO datasets are here: http://data.euro.who.int/dmdb/