Editorial: The Lancet, 29th January 2011
There is a crisis in the National Health Service (NHS). The publication of the Health and Social Care Bill last week heralds dramatic changes for the NHS, which will affect the way public health and social care are provided in the UK. Those changes alone will have huge impact, but it is the formation of an NHS Commissioning Board, and commissioning consortia, that will once and for all remove the word “national” from the health service in England. The result, due to come into force in 2013, will be the catastrophic break up of the NHS.
Maintaining the status quo in the NHS is not an option. The NHS is not delivering the care that patients need. Patients with cancer, for example, are less likely to survive in the UK than in Australia, Canada, Sweden, or Norway. Michel Coleman and colleagues' Lancet Article, published last month, reports that the survival of patients with primary colorectal, lung, breast, or ovarian cancer is lower in the UK than in other countries with similar wealth, universal access to health care, and good cancer registration data. Survival is, they argue, “the key index of the overall effectiveness of health services in the management of patients with cancer”.
Despite the huge sums of money pumped into the NHS over the past few years—particularly into the salary budget for staff—translation into benefits for patients is hard to identify. Moreover, the unyielding mountain of bureaucracy that is integral to the NHS stifles innovation, such that it is difficult to design the services needed for local populations.
Will the changes outlined in the Health and Social Care Bill solve these problems within the NHS and improve care for patients? The truth is that we do not know. What we do know is that putting general practitioners (GPs) in charge of commissioning health services for their patients is similar, in some respects, to the fundholding experiment in the 1990s. The principle then was that GPs controlled the budgets to buy the specialist care their patients needed. Fundholding took years to implement, but evidence on short-term or long-term benefits for patients is lacking. In the current Bill, health outcomes, including prevention of premature death, will be the responsibility of the NHS Commissioning Board, which has been asked to publish a business plan and annual reports on progress. That business plan is urgently needed to allow transparent appraisal of how the Board plans to monitor patients' outcomes.
The UK coalition Government has now been in power for about 8 months. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats included the formation of an NHS Commissioning Board, or GPs' commissioning consortia, in their health manifestos on which the electorate voted. The speed of the introduction of the Health and Social Care Bill is surprising, especially given the absence of relevant detail in the health manifestos. The Conservatives promised, if elected, to scrap “politically motivated targets that have no clinical justification” and called themselves the “party of the NHS”—a commitment that seems particularly hollow now.
Since its establishment in July, 1948, the aim of the NHS has been to offer a comprehensive service to improve health and prevent illness, available to all in England and Wales (and then extended throughout the UK), which is largely free of charge. Health care for all, for free, has been the common ethos and philosophy throughout the NHS. On July 3, 1948, in an editorial entitled “Our Service”, The Lancet commented: “Now that everyone is entitled to full medical care, the doctor can provide that care without thinking of his own profit or his patient's loss, and can allocate his efforts more according to medical priority. The money barrier has of course protected him against people who do not really require help, but it has also separated him from people who really do.” Now, GPs will return to the market place and will decide what care they can afford to provide for their patients, and who will be the provider. The emphasis will move from clinical need (GPs' forte) back to cost (not what GPs were trained to evaluate). The ethos will become that of the individual providers, and will differ accordingly throughout England, replacing the philosophy of a genuinely national health service.
Health professionals cannot say that no change is needed—it most certainly is. But there is sufficient uncertainty and concern about the changes outlined in the Health and Social Care Bill to pause, to learn from the past, and to consider what the changes mean for patients' outcomes. As it stands, the UK Government's new Bill spells the end of the NHS.