We can’t improve the NHS if we conduct all debate about it using shibboleths not analysis

We need better policy for the NHS. But we are not going to get it if the entire debate is a Manichean point scoring contest conducted entirely in shibboleths and lacking reasonable analysis of alternatives. Too many serious people seem to believe that everything in the NHS would be fine if we undid the Lansley act and spent a bit more money. That analysis is naive, is stopping serious discussion of what the real challenges are and is distracting people from improvement that could come right now.

I went to the recent Royal Society of Medicine event (the one where Stephen Hawking condemned Jeremy Hunt’s selective use of evidence on weekend mortality generating a flood of media commentary). There were a lot of serious, senior thinkers on stage and in the audience. I naively assumed that a debate about the past present and future of the NHS would contain some disinterested assessments of the real problems and their causes. What I found was a desire to blame all the problems on the government and/or longstanding conspiracies to destroy the system. There was a remarkable lack of serious analysis and a widespread belief that every problem would miraculously go away if we simply reversed government policy.

Once you have adopted this position, you are clearly absolved from doing any serious analysis of the state of the NHS and you don’t have to do any thinking about how to improve it. This is a catastrophic position for the NHS as it desperately needs some better thinking about how to improve.

The debate consisted of shibboleths not substance

Here are a few examples of just how futile that debate was.

Richard Murphy made some good arguments about the limits of government spending (in a sovereign currency area, he argues, we don’t need austerity at all). But he then argued that the reason why we have austerity is because of a neo-liberal conspiracy to shrink the state. Maybe some people want to do that, but this government are about as useful as a one-armed trapeze artist with an itchy bum and are not credible organisers of such a conspiracy. Assigning the blame to a deep rooted conspiracy lowers the credibility of the argument and absolves true believers from any further need to engage or analyse the difficult details of policy.

Many speakers, including Hawking, condemned any private sector involvement in the NHS as if undoing it would suddenly improve things. Nobody mentioned that the largest sector of the NHS run by the private sector (the GPs) has the highest patient satisfaction. Supposedly we must have public provision as we can’t trust the private sector’s motives. Somehow, though, the even more severe conflict of interest of working for the NHS while also running a competing profit making enterprise (as perhaps half of NHS consultants do) was raised once and then completely ignored.

Audience members heckled Nigel Edwards for pointing out that the “we must spend a higher % of GDP on health because our neighbours do” argument was undermined by the latest OECD statistics. There are good arguments for spending more but this isn’t one of them. Rather than recognise this, the audience and many commentators prefer to quote the old numbers because they bolster their argument in a way the better numbers don’t.

And a disturbing number of people advocated solutions to the current crisis that involve major legislative and organisational change. So reversing the current Lansley bill to make the Secretary of State directly responsible for the NHS and abolishing the purchaser provider split were widely supported. This is extraordinarily naive for two main reasons. Jeremy Hunt, despite not being directly responsible for NHS management according to the legislation, has been the most interfering SOS in recent history, directing individual hospitals to do what he wants in a way that would make even stalinist central managers like David Nicholson jealous. Secondly, the one thing we are certain of about major legislative and structural change is that it is extraordinarily disruptive and costly to the the NHS in the short term. We have had so many reorganisations in the last two decades that we still don’t know whether any of them have made any sustained difference to NHS performance. Despite this many are still arguing that we need another one.

Then there is the response to STPs. Simon Stevens (wisely I think) opted to try to do significant change in the NHS without new top-down structural change or legislation. But the panels and the audience broadly disliked the STP plans. Not because they are often poorly thought through or lack evidence that what they propose will work (though this is usually true) but because they are a trojan horse for American style Accountable Care Organisations which are a part of the conspiracy to privatise the system and put profits into the hands of american capitalist scumbags. Once you have a good conspiracy you don’t need to think any more about the actual content of STPs. Simon Stevens is clearly a trojan horse for United Health. Conveniently this absolves anyone from having to engage with the nasty operational details of STP plans (which would be well worth doing given how many consist of fairy-tale wish-fulfillment fantasies).

Many argued that the NHS was facing serious staff shortages. And this may well be true in many places. But Sarah Wollaston’s claim that this might be due as much to problems with retention as it was due to any lack of supply was ignored. The idea that weak operational management leading to high staff turnover might be the core problem didn’t seem to occur to anyone: it’s all about the supply of doctors and nurses and we can blame that on the government.

Again the debate ignored several relevant facts that would require actual analysis and thought. For example the biggest cause of increasing hospital deficits is the reliance of expensive agency staff to fill rotas. That’s not a staff shortage, that’s an inability to recruit or retain people on permanent contracts: a very different problem with the need for very different solutions. And it is hard to reconcile the belief that the major problems in A&E waiting times are primarily a staffing issue with the actual facts. Medical staffing in A&E has grown faster than demand for more than a decade while performance has declined. And it is hard to see how more A&E doctors can magically create more free beds (lack of free beds is the major cause of A&E delays not a lack of staff in the A&E). Anecdotes about the pressures and overwork facing front line staff point to a symptom of the problem not the cause of the problem.

Even the revered Stephen Hawking broke his own rules not to selectively quote evidence. He was right to condemn Hunt for his selective use of data on 7-day mortality. But then he proceeded to recommend NHS policies based on a highly selective analysis of the international evidence. Private provision of services is evil (because the USA’s health system is evil). But many health systems in Europe seem to do well despite much of the provision being run by organisations other than central government. The NHS is being pushed towards private insurance and we must resist that trend. But, though I hate to agree with Hunt on anything, there is no evidence this is happening. Moreover, though private insurance for health funding is bound to be less efficient that funding from taxation (so there is no good reason to move the NHS to that model) there are plenty of systems in Europe where compulsory insurance works well and has none of the damaging effects it has in the perversely badly designed US “system.”

In short the event was not a debate but largely consisted of a bunch of people exploring shibboleths that helped them decide whether they were on the right side in the argument. The trouble with shibboleths is they are arbitrary and irrelevant and seem to form a shield that avoids any need to discuss matters of substance about what policies might actually improve the NHS. Which side you are on is all that matters: whether you have anything of substance to add is irrelevant.

The NHS needs a serious debate on how to improve.

For example, how big should the key organisation units be? Nigel Edwards pointed out that we do have evidence for this and that the best-performing systems have units that are 10 to 20 times smaller than the NHS. If the NHS is run centrally, any policy mistake will affect nearly 60m people. That means mistakes have really big consequences (it also means that there will be pressure never to admit they were mistakes greatly inhibiting the speed of learning). Imagine a system where the organisational units were maybe 2-4m people (we could call them SHAs as we haven’t used that unit name for a while or we could just call them STPs). The scale of mistakes could be limited and the effectiveness of different policies could be compared, greatly increasing the possibility of learning and improvement.

But the audience and panellists would mostly have preferred a centrally-controlled monolithic system where the SOS always magically knew the right policy for everything. The idea that variation and experimentation with policies could be used to greatly increase the amount of learning and therefore drive much faster improvement was condemned as an excuse for a “postcode lottery”. This convenient shibboleth avoided any need to engage with that important issue of how we structure of the system.

Or, consider the problem of variation in quality and efficiency across the NHS. The evidence we have suggest that there is far too much variation and that the system isn’t good at learning from it or improving. The cause of this variation isn’t top-down structures or Jeremy Hunt, it is bottom-up operational management. For example, some parts of the system are good a diagnosing and treating patients who need hip replacements and other parts are not. Most significant improvement in the NHS probably comes because people find better ways to organise and coordinate the work in some single operational area. Even some GPs, who are supposedly overwhelmed because of staff shortages and government indifference, have found that reorganising how they receive and manage patient demand can create a lower workload, faster patient access and much improved patient satisfaction. All without central government having to do anything.

But the idea that improvement are possible is essentially ignored in the current debate. Even the idea that there is too much variation across the NHS is regarded as part of the conspiracy to undermine the system rather than an important metric that can point to what needs to improve and how to improve it.

In short, the widespread belief that the current government is the source of all problems has become an excuse not to bother thinking about how the improve the NHS now. Worse, even if the current government is replaced at some point in the future, there will be no good ideas on how to make the NHS better and we will likely be faced with yet another round of disruption that will deliver no tangible improvement when the smoke has cleared.

I’m no fan of Jeremy Hunt who has been a bad SOS. But his opponents are are as bereft as he is of good ideas to make the NHS better. What a woeful place the debate on the future of the NHS has become.