Thursday, 26 November 2015

The NHS Mandate

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, has, I hear, agreed to go (or send his minions) to talk to the junior hospital doctors at ACAS, the reconciliation service - at last. It takes a long time, it seems, for ministers to listen. So it was with a certain amount of scepticism that last week I read and tried to understand the Government's consultation document on the future of the NHS, and then filled in the response form. I found out about the consultation only after reading about a Guardian article on the subject by Ann Robinson, not thanks to the Government making it known. I received an automated acknowledgement after I'd submitted my response. I wonder, actually I very much doubt, whether any human being, besides you will bother to read it, let alone take any notice of it. Already Mr Osborne's Autumn Statement has had implications for health and social care provision in the local government settlement, which close down investment.

Anyway, here is is my response:

1) Do you agree with our aims for the mandate to NHS England?
I disagree with a number of implications in the priorities and aims:
1.    That ‘preventing ill health and supporting people to live healthier lives’ is only the remit of the NHS. If other budgets are cut, e.g. education and social care, than that aim cannot be achieved.
2.    That the present GP system does not provide good 24/7 care. As a patient with a chronic illness, this has been far from my experience. This aim appears to militate against small GP practices.
3.    Defining as ‘long-term’ a mandate lasting ‘three or more years’ invites the possibility of continual uncertainty and upheaval to the service. It needs guaranteed stability.
I would question also the assumption that the patient knows best implied in the priority: ‘People should be given more power and control over the care that is provided to them’ whilst agreeing that it should be that ‘services are arranged around their needs and they are supported to manage their own health.’
I agree that the mandate should be clearer and more accessible to the public.

2) Is there anything else we should be considering in producing the mandate to NHS England?
Clarity and accessibility means avoiding language incomprehensible to the public, such as: ‘in-year deliverables and metrics to measure progress’ whose meaning eludes an English graduate.

3) What views do you have on our overarching objective of improving outcomes and reducing health inequalities, including by using new measures of comparative quality for local CCG populations to complement the national outcomes measures in the NHS Outcomes Framework?
The aim of increased transparency is a laudable one, but it needs to be accompanied by increased trust, particularly of health professionals. The aim of delivering equally good service nationwide is also clearly desirable.
There is a danger in this target-driven objective of unfairly stigmatizing skilled professionals in challenging situations and driving them away from where they are most needed.
There is a further danger of diverting professionals from their primary calling of care into a culture of form-filling. This is counterproductive in the pursuit of excellence.
There is also a danger of league tables being used as ammunition in political argument, which ultimately demoralises rather than encourages. This is the stuff of bad management.

4) What views do you have on our priorities for the health and care system?

In headline terms, your priorities are ‘motherhood and apple pie’
You want to create a healthier society, particularly focusing on younger people. However, this seems less a function of the NHS than of Education and recreation.
Dementia care and research is clearly an increased priority. I am glad the government wants to put effort into those – as well as other areas of mental health. The neglect of mental health ought to be redressed; but this will need considerable financial investment both in the NHS and in community social care.
Transparency and simplicity from the patient’s perspective is desirable. However the security of digital records also needs to be paramount. The government’s principle should be to rein back on centralised record-keeping, rather than extending it. The citizen’s privacy should normally trump efficiency. Retelling one’s symptoms is a small price to pay for individual liberty.
However, creating new rights, such as the ‘right to a specific named GP’, runs the risk increasing the burden of litigiousness surrounding the medical profession as does the comparison of the health service with the airline industry – with the possibility of suing for late appointments for example. The healthcare industry is entirely different from a commercial enterprise, and should not be shoehorned into becoming one.
Whilst I am in full agreement with the aim of preventing ‘avoidable ill health and premature mortality’, I think the assumption that increasing longevity is a desirable aim should be questioned. Officiously prolonging life is not a great good and should not be ‘a metric to measure progress’. Good end of life care, however, should always be a top priority.

5) What views do you have on how we set objectives for NHS England to reflect their contribution to achieving our priorities?

As already indicated, I have some reservations about the possible implications of where the objectives are specific. Otherwise they seem general enough to be open to whatever interpretation is required by policy makers. I do notice the final objective for the NHS to make money, or to be involved in its generation.
Finally it needs to be said that this consultation process is particularly opaque. The consultation document is not easy to follow, what the questions are asking isn’t obvious and where to send this response form is equally unclear. You could for example simply say, ‘Thank you for taking the trouble to complete this form. Please now send it to’