One trouble with dropping targets is that such a decision tends to create a target. The head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, has outlined many sensible goals in his proposals for the future of the health service. But attention has focused on one thing. In order to take the strain off A&E departments and improve cancer treatment, Stevens has decided to drop the target whereby 92% of routine surgery is carried out within 18 weeks of a GP referral. The moment that some ghastly failure can be personalised in the form of an iconic victim of this change, Stevens will be held personally responsible. He is the target now.
Why is Stevens taking this risk? Largely because the government has made it clear that the extra funding Stevens needs will not be forthcoming. But it’s also another attempt at a nudge, to GPs and to patients. People can be aggressively passive about their health. They want doctors to fix it for them. GPs are wary of berating patients into losing weight and exercising more, especially now, when patients have read on the internet all about the operation they can get. The promise of elective surgery within 18 weeks, I’m afraid, only encourages both GP and patient to kick the can down the road. The hope is that the removal of the target will encourage GPs and patients to opt first for physiotherapy, which is what all sensible people should be doing anyway.
Some of the problem is with us, and our demands. We trail off to the GP with our colds and beg for antibiotics
Around 150 urgent treatment centres are being planned, to take the strain off A&E, which NHS chiefs say still attracts about 3 million people each year with minor ailments. Stevens is hoping to persuade all GP practices to offer evening and weekend appointments, so that A&E departments don’t become one-stop-shops over the weekend. Astoundingly, Stevens is also demanding that all A&E departments should introduce “comprehensive front-door clinical streaming”. Here in my metropolitan elite bubble, I’d imagined that all A&E departments had been assessing all walk-ins by medical need for decades. It’s easy to forget just how much sheer inertia is inevitable when dealing with a beast as large and complex as the NHS.
Stevens also addresses the system’s two most glaring failures – the lack of integration with social care and the relatively slender access to mental health services. On the first, Stevens aims, through closer coordination between hospitals and councils, to free up potentially 3,000 hospital beds. On the second, the aim is to provide talking therapies to 200,000 more people. These are ambitious goals. Considering the lack of investment, they are valiantly optimistic. Sometimes, people doing tough work need a bit of encouragement and applause. Stevens is one of them.
There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance to Britain’s relationship with the NHS. Yes, we love it. No surprises there. It’s worth loving and not only for sentimental or socialist reasons. All but the most cock-eyed of diehard free-marketeers are obliged to bow to the evidence and admit that the NHS is the most cost-efficient health service in the world. Many politicians have struggled to come up with alternative funding models and had to admit that nothing is really worth the hassle it would cause. Insurance-based schemes around the world have been scrutinised and the conclusion is pretty much always that these simply drive up the cost of healthcare generally, with the US a particularly abject example.
Yet at the same time, our love for the NHS is sometimes skin-deep. When things go wrong or are disappointing, this is seen as proof that the service is falling apart, hardly ever that medical problems can be complex and baffling, or that people are not always the most reliable witnesses to their own problems. There’s still a great deal of suspicion about change.
Stevens has come up with a solid plan, and everyone’s up in arms because operations that might not work are being sidelined in favour of restorative exercises that probably will, if only people commit to carrying them out. Why is this supposedly awful thing being done? Just so that people who have been knocked down by cars or people with cancer can have their actual lives saved. Just so that hospitals don’t have to farm operations out to private providers simply to hit their targets on not always terribly necessary operations.
Some of the problem is us, the users; our own expectations and demands. We have this precious, amazing resource. We stand with it and see the government as its enemy. Yet we trail off to the GP with our colds and beg for antibiotics; we call ambulances when our friend is drunk; we’re astounded when our neighbour reveals himself as proficient in first aid.
Right now, there’s a hullabaloo because elderly people with some money behind them are expected to pay for people to help them with things they can no longer do for themselves. This, apparently, punishes “the thrifty”. How can having the wherewithal to pay for things you need be “a punishment”? Sometimes, the basic problem is that we want the best but we don’t want to pay for it. Full stop.