NHS: Front-line and Specialised Services — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 13th January 2011.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 5:50 pm, 13th January 2011

My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging and well informed debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for calling it and all noble Lords who have spoken so eloquently. It is particularly right that I should single out for special praise my noble friend Lady Jolly, who I am delighted to welcome to your Lordships' House and our health debates.

The wording of the question that we are debating hints at some nervousness about the Government's reform proposals. I understand and appreciate many of the concerns that have been articulated today. There is, however, one simple truth about the reforms: they are necessary to create a sustainable NHS for the future. To make efficiency savings you have to improve commissioning and address the long-standing problems in a minority of challenged providers. It is for the long-term as well as the short-term future of the health service that we are working, and I remain exceedingly optimistic about that future.

The Government are fully committed to the NHS and its values and principles. We have prioritised its budget. Total health funding will rise by more than 10 per cent over the spending period. We are also starting to cut spend on administration to focus funding on the front line. The right reverend Prelate voiced some perfectly legitimate concerns about implementing change at a time of financial challenge. I agree with him that the future will see a great deal of change for the NHS. We are not shying away from the difficulties this will present, even within a protected budget. Increasing demands on the NHS mean that we will need to make the budget stretch further than ever before. However, I do not agree that a tighter budget necessarily leads to worse care.

Our reform agenda is entirely focused on improving the quality of healthcare services. Our vision is to improve health outcomes so that they are among the best in the world, and to bring about a genuine shift in power away from the state and towards the front-line staff and the people who use services. The reforms are designed to lead to better quality and more consistent commissioning so that outcomes for patients improve; drive up the quality of care through patient empowerment and choice; give providers greater freedom to innovate; and create a level playing field with fair pricing, encouraging services to be more responsive to patients' needs.

There is a clear focus on quality throughout our reforms. To name but a few, there will be payment incentives for quality through the Quality and Outcomes Framework, CQUIN and the tariff. Under the health and social care Bill, which will be introduced shortly, the Secretary of State, the NHS commissioning board and GP consortia will also be required to act with a view to securing continuous quality improvement in services provided by the NHS.

To achieve optimum outcomes for patients, we are transforming how quality is measured and how the NHS is held to account, shifting the focus away from centrally driven process targets towards improved outcomes, with the NHS held to account against a new NHS outcomes framework. Patient choice is not an end in itself but the focus on choice will drive up the quality of services and therefore improve outcomes. There will be greater access to information and-not least for chronic disease, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar-patients should have a greater feeling of empowerment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, focused on specialised services, particularly for spinal injury. I will write to her on the detail of her questions. We recognised the needs of patients for specialised services when we drew up the reform programme last summer. Patients accessing specialised services should receive high-quality, effective, evidence-based treatment and care with improved outcomes. Our proposal is that the NHS commissioning board should commission specialised services. Responses to the public consultation have generally supported this proposal. However, the system will allow for flexibility in who commissions which services, allowing for changes over time as needed.

The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, asked me about definitions. There will be the flexibility to change the definition of specialised services so that more or fewer services are commissioned by the board. This will allow the system to align with changing patterns of care. Additionally, there will be flexibility for consortia to decide how to commission other low-volume services; for example, by federating together.

The key point here is that we recognise that there is no one size fits all organisational structure that will work for all services equally. Therefore, we are moving away from specifying a fixed number of local or regional commissioning bodies to create a much more flexible structure where consortia can grow or shrink and can work together and with the NHS commissioning board in order to commission high-quality care most effectively. I say to the right reverend Prelate in particular that we will maintain our focus on the quality of care throughout the transition to the new system. Transition will occur through a carefully designed and managed process allowing for rapid adoption, system-wide learning and effective risk-management. We are determined fully to support the NHS during these changes.

The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, asked me some specific questions about whether there were to be any cuts in the number of trainee doctors. The number of trainee doctors should be appropriate to meet the estimates of future demand for trained doctors. This year the entry to postgraduate medical training will be around 6,800 in total. That is in line with the recommendations from the Centre for Workforce Intelligence report on 2011 training numbers that analysed trainee doctor intakes in the context of long-term demand for consultants. The Centre for Workforce Intelligence will continue to provide that kind of analysis to us. The noble Lord asked about GP pathfinders. We are engaging with the first group of pathfinders to consider some of the very questions that he posed. We will be hosting a learning event for pathfinders later this month to explore those issues and to showcase the early impact of emerging consortia. It will be the responsibility of the NHS commissioning board to produce and publish an analysis of the findings of the pathfinder programme and set out the lessons learnt but we are also setting up a learning network to ensure that the experience of pathfinders can be quickly shared through the wider GP community. The learning from the pathfinders will touch on both the areas that the noble Lord raised. One will be to look at some of the structural principles such as the successes and obstacles that consortia of different sizes come up against. But we want pathfinders to start making a difference for their patients now, and so improving services for patients is the area into which pathfinders will be putting most of their efforts.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of integrating care and the spread of good practice and how that will be incorporated into contracts. One of the key roles of the board will be to provide national leadership for driving up the quality of care. I say that also to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, who asked me about this. It will help spread best practice by publishing commissioning guidance and model care pathways based on the evidence-based quality standards that it has asked NICE to develop. It will develop model contracts and standard contractual terms for providers. It will also develop the commissioning outcomes framework. I could go on about more areas of support that consortia will get from the board but I hope this reassures the noble Lord that our reforms will mean that good practice is embedded far more widely and more quickly than it is in the current system.

The noble Lord asked how the expertise and knowledge of clinicians in secondary care would be built into this process. That was an issue raised also by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and, in a different way, by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in relation to dementia care. It was also alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar. We have consistently emphasised the importance of multi-professional involvement in commissioning and we expect that this will be one of the areas that will be examined as part of the pathfinder programme. Good commissioning and the designing of care pathways will naturally involve a wide range of professionals and we would expect GP consortia to engage other health and care professionals in their commissioning work. Incidentally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, that we will continue to support the previous Government's programme of integrated care pilots.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked me how health and local government services will be joined up. For the first time local authorities will have a lead role in improving the strategic co-ordination of commissioning across the NHS, social care and related children's and public health services. The new health and well-being boards will bring together the key leaders across these services to work in partnership and to develop a joint health and well-being strategy for their area. I hope that that partly reassures her that the services she particularly mentioned will certainly not be lost sight of in that process, because there is a fundamental synergy in the structures that I have referred to.

The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, asked what is to happen to OSCHR, the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research. It has done a fine job over the past three years. It is a very useful mechanism for facilitating processes for joint working, focusing particularly on translational research. That body will continue with an increased focus on co-ordination and foresight.

The noble Lord also asked how GP consortia will be incentivised to be involved in health research. I recognise his concerns. There is not time for me to say a lot, but the department is funding the National Institute for Health Research Primary Care Research Network. This brings together a wide range of primary care health professionals and is dedicated to expanding clinical research in primary care. The Academy of Medical Science's report, which the noble Lord referred to, was published this week. We welcome the report and we are carefully considering how to implement its recommendations. I will write to him further on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked in particular about how academic medicine will be protected. The Government recognise the crucial importance of academic medicine; we are increasing funding for health research, as has been mentioned, part of which supports lectureships and other awards, and we are currently consulting on our proposals for education and training. However, again, perhaps I may write to the noble Lord with further and better particulars.

My noble friend Lord Colwyn spoke on his specialist subject of dentistry, and perhaps I can make some amends for my previous omissions on this score. The Government are committed to piloting the new contracts before introducing any of them at scale, to ensure that lessons are learnt and acted on. The design and introduction of a new contract will be a key part of the piloting process. The BDA has welcomed that. Representatives from the profession have been closely involved in the work to develop our proposals. The intention is for the National Health Service commissioning board to commission secondary care to ensure consistency of approach. Again, time prevents me answering some of his further questions.

On herbal medicine and the possible regulation of authorised practitioners, I cannot go much further than I did in my earlier Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, other than to acknowledge my noble friend's rightful concerns and to re-emphasise that we are taking our deliberations forward as a matter of urgency.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked who will oversee hospital expenditure. The answer is that that will be done by governors in foundation trusts, who will scrutinise trust board expenditure. She also asked me about NICE, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. NICE is recognised as an international leader in the evaluation of drugs and health technologies and will continue to have an important advisory role, including assessing the incremental therapeutic benefits of new medicines. However, as we implement our plans for value-based pricing from 2014-a little way ahead-NICE's role will inevitably evolve. Its work will increasingly focus on giving authoritative advice to clinicians on how to deliver the most effective treatments and on the development of quality standards.

I am conscious that I have overshot my time. Although there is technically time in hand, it would not be courteous to the House if I continued. I have many further answers and I apologise to noble Lords whose questions I have not reached. I will write to them as fully as I can. I apologise in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, whose questions I was very keen to answer.

I recognise that these reforms will be undertaken in a challenging context in which staff and leaders across the NHS face personal and professional uncertainty about their futures. However, the enthusiasm shown by commissioners, providers, managers and clinicians to bring the new system into being makes me certain that success is achievable.


Heal Lynne
Posted on 14 Jan 2011 1:53 pm

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