Something major happened in the NHS in February. No, not the new White Paper on rearranging the furniture; something else. This was the announcement, or lack of announcement, that a large number of GP Practices have been taken over by a US Health Insurance giant – Centene. AT Medics, a London based GP group, which runs 37 practices, has essentially been bought out by Centene. This means overnight hundreds of thousands of patients woke up with a new GP provider, without their consent. The acquisition makes Centene the largest provider of General Practice in England with 69 practices.
The way this has happened follows a pattern seen in recent years. No consultation or public scrutiny; use of legal loopholes; and the use of the revolving door of ex-NHS leaders who know the system as gamekeepers turned poachers. It is possible by a sleight of hand similar to the methods of the cuckoo. The incoming company adds or replaces directors of the ‘host’ organisation, which technically still exists so keeps its NHS contracts, just as a cuckoo displaces the host’s chicks out of the original nest.
The significance is twofold.
Firstly, deep and comprehensive commercial involvement in our NHS is troubling. In this case the US health insurer is not only now the largest provider of GP services in the country, it also is providing contracts to NHS England and Integrated Care Systems to advise how they run the NHS – nationally and locally. This gives great insight into the decision makers and influence over how the money is spent. Combined with Centene having a major stake in private hospitals, it is not hard to join the dots- involvement in the design of systems, financing of services and the provision of services gives companies a great degree of involvement in our NHS.
Secondly these developments are a logical conclusion to major changes for some years in the way family doctors services are organised and delivered. As a GP I have huge concerns and patients will do as well. Why does it matter?
When invited in Parliament by his shadow, Jonathan Ashworth, to condemn the takeover, Secretary of State Matt Hancock declined, replying: ‘What matters for patients is the quality of patient care… what matters to people is the quality of care. That is what we should look out for’.
Is he correct? Is the quality of care all that matters? Or do the people providing it, and their ethos, motivation, interests and agenda matter? Is it possible to disentangle ‘quality’, an abstract notion, from the specific people providing a service and their very non-abstract interests?
One of the reasons I became a GP, and probably the major reason I have stayed in my practice working full time for nearly 15 years, is the deep-rooted feeling that I have of being part of something more than just a clinical service. Myself and my GP colleagues, similar to many across the country, both lead the service and work in it. Every day we see our patients and work in our communities, we know the people and the community. There is no escaping direct and sometimes blunt feedback. Our teams are small, if there is a problem, we are around to fix it. If something needs to change, we don’t need to enter into a large corporate machine for it to happen. We get the spanner out and make the adjustment.
Can we really say the same for a company that has its eye on more than just providing a ‘good quality’ GP service for the 69 different sites it has control of? There are those who compare health care to supermarkets, or banks. The argument is that efficiency and scale are what is needed; the people who provide it can change and the patient-doctor relationship isn’t a problem, as long as the measurements prove ‘quality’. This may work for a simple transactional arrangement, such as buying some groceries or cashing a cheque, but healthcare – and especially holistic primary healthcare is a more complicated than that. It does matter who cares. It is all about the people, their motivations and their relationship with their patients and community. This is not to say that UK General Practice can’t be improved, but let’s at least keep the baby if we are changing some of the bathwater.
If anything, General Practice feels more like farming than retail. When done well, looking after the health of the community well takes time, and deep commitment. When done badly it can result in destruction of the environment and soulless communities. Will this new huge, commercial type of model of healthcare care about this?
I doubt it.